The Price of Justice, the new Lawrence Leamer book, tells the true story of two lawyers – Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley – and the roller coaster of justice they’ve been riding since 1998.
To Fawcett and Stanley, the case appeared simple enough in 1998: Massey Energy, led by CEO Don Blankenship, materially breached a contract with Hugh Caperton’s Harmon Mining Company with the intent of forcing Harmon into bankruptcy. Heaping insult upon injury, Blankenship fraudulently feigned interest in purchasing Caperton’s mine so that he could acquire inside trade knowledge – knowledge he then leveraged to his advantage and Caperton’s detriment.
In truth, the lawyers had it right. It was a simple case. The paper trail was damning. After a two month trial, the jury required fewer than 5 hours to work through the math and return a verdict $50 million for Harmon and Caperton.
If the story ended there it would have been interesting enough. Blankenship’s ruthless business machinations were villainous, and from Dallas, to Breaking Bad, to There Will Be Blood, we’re often drawn to the drama of bare-knuckle and lawless capitalism.
But the story doesn’t end there. Indeed, our story has just begun.
You see, Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley didn’t know West Virginia. And they damned sure didn’t know Don Blankenship.
Blankenship simply wasn’t going to lose to Hugh Caperton. Not in West Virginia. No way. He appealed to West Virginia’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Appeals.
During oral arguments, West Virginia’s Chief Justice Spike Maynard conspicuously left the bench while Caperton’s lawyers made their case, only to return the second they concluded. When the decision was announced, he voted with the 3-2 majority to overturn the $50 million verdict against Massey. Of course, Maynard did retroactively withdraw his vote and recuse himself from further consideration of the case… after pictures surfaced of Blankenship and Maynard frolicking together on the French Riviera – while Maynard was considering Blankenship’s appeal.
But that’s a detour… merely one colorful thread Leamer expertly weaves into his extraordinary tale.
The Price of Justice is, at its core, the story of a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2009. In a 5-4 split, Justice Kennedy, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, held in Caperton v. Massey that “extreme facts” created a “probability of bias” such that a judge’s refusal to recuse violated the Due Process clause of the Constitution.
The case wasn’t about Spike Maynard.
It was about Don Blankenship and another judge, Brent Benjamin.
In short, judges are elected in West Virginia. Don Blankenship didn’t want Justice Warren McGraw of West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals to hear his case. So while his case was pending, Blankenship spent $3 million on a judicial election to replace him with an obscure attorney named Brent Benjamin.
$3 million buys a lot of media in West Virginia, and Blankenship hired a team of ruthless consultants and formed a PAC named “For the Sake of the Children” to smear Judge McGraw as a coddler of pedophiles.
It worked. McGraw lost. A lot of people were stunned at the result, as a rule incumbent judges didn’t lose in West Virginia. Evidently $3 million has a way of setting precedent.
From Blankenship’s perspective, it must have been a thrilling victory. When Justice Benjamin refused to recuse from hearing the Massey appeal… Well, have you ever seen Sylvester with a mouthful of Tweety? That was Blankenship. And when Benjamin joined the majority in reversing the $50 million verdict? Well, how did you feel when you last made an investment that yielded a +2667% return?
Now it was Caperton’s turn to appeal. And the only place left to go was the Supreme Court of the United States…
One could be forgiven for believing that when a case is overturned by SCOTUS, that’s the end of the line. Not so. Join us in the comments as we unfurl the rest of the story…
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