'The Price of Justice': West Virginia legal gothic

When a coal baron bullied and bankrupted a small operator, two Pittsburgh lawyers took on the case -- all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Laurence Leamer's 'straightforward and elegant' account brings the facts to life.

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Some readers will understandably confuse the contemporary history chronicled in Laurence Leamer's "The Price of Justice" for compelling fiction.

Based on the 15-year fight for justice waged by two Pittsburgh attorneys on behalf of a coal mine operator driven to financial ruin by a larger than life force in West Virginia business and politics, the book is inspiring. It is a story about gritty dedication to ideals and public service in the face of adversity.

It is also disturbing, for Mr. Leamer exposes how a domineering CEO used personal and corporate funds to fight a costly battle of attrition in court, including reshaping the makeup of West Virginia's highest court to suit his purposes. He also illustrates the costly consequences of that CEO's pursuit of profits, documenting how much harm he did before others realized what the two determined lawyers suspected all along.


By Laurence Leamer
Times Books/Henry Holt ($30).

As with any good fiction, "The Price of Justice" derives its strength from well-developed characters. Like his earlier works on the Kennedy family, the real world provided a wealth of material and Mr. Leamer makes the most of it.

At the center of the conflict are Hugh Caperton, a small coal mine operator, and his biggest customer, Massey Energy chairman and CEO Don Blankenship. Mr. Blankenship's refusal to honor a coal supply contract drove Mr. Caperton's Harman Development into bankruptcy and spawned litigation heard in small town courts in Virginia and West Virginia, the supreme courts of both states, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Mr. Blankenship relied on an army of litigators who took their marching orders from him, Mr. Caperton hired David Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, an unlikely pair of Pittsburgh attorneys who convinced their law firms, Buchanan Ingersoll and Reed Smith, to take the case on a contingency basis. They are a study in contrasts that Mr. Leamer meticulously details: Mr. Fawcett, the ponderous, methodical son of a prominent Pittsburgh litigator, and Mr. Stanley, a former journalist who, like his nemesis, grew up in the West Virginia coal fields and is in his element doing battle there. The supporting cast -- compromised judges, intimidated miners and their supervisors, aggrieved widows of Massey miners, and a horde of other lawyers -- also receive thorough treatment.

The result is an expansive, clearly crafted account of how civil lawsuits filed by Mr. Caperton against a Massey subsidiary in 1998 became part of a larger struggle to hold Mr. Blankenship accountable for more than reneging on a coal supply contract and bankrupting Harman.

Mr. Blankenship is the source of much of the story's vitality. He is the schoolyard bully writ large. Events involving Mr. Blankenship, including the April 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners, that occur as Massey fights a $50 million verdict a West Virginia jury awarded Mr. Caperton bring the stakes the Pittsburgh attorneys are fighting for into sharper focus. Suddenly, Mr. Fawcett and Mr. Stanley are standing up for something much larger than Mr. Caperton.

With a careful attention to detail, Mr. Leamer chronicles intrigue inside the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which three times took up Massey's appeal of the $50 million awarded to Harman Development. From Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, who vacationed with Mr. Blankenship on the Riviera then ruled with the majority in throwing out the $50 million verdict against Massey, to Justice Brent Benjamin, who refused to recuse himself even though Mr. Blankenship's substantial campaign contributions put him on the state's highest court, Mr. Leamer paints an appalling portrait of a compromised court.

Justice Benjamin's refusal transformed a contract dispute into a constitutional issue: At what point do campaign contributions make a judge incapable of rendering a fair and impartial decision? That moves Mr. Fawcett and Mr. Stanley's case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 2009, the court ruled, 5-4, that Justice Benjamin's refusal to step aside created "a serious, objective risk of actual bias."

In fiction, this would mean victory for the undaunted plaintiff and his intrepid attorneys. But things are more nuanced in real life. As monumental as the decision appeared to be, it was upstaged three months later by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where the court ruled that corporations and unions are entitled to the same First Amendment protections as people. The decision sparked a frenzy of outsized campaign contributions that made Mr. Blankenship's spending seem insignificant.

Mr. Leamer does not succumb to the temptation to overwrite the story. His account is straightforward and elegant. Although there is ample opportunity to be dramatic about Mr. Caperton's plight, Mr. Leamer lets the facts tell the story.

In the end, "The Price of Justice" is more about the price of Mr. Stanley's and Mr. Fawcett's all-consuming pursuit of Mr. Blankenship than it is about justice for Mr. Caperton. After West Virginia's Supreme Court ruled against him a third time, saying his West Virginia lawsuit should have been filed in Virginia, Mr. Fawcett and Mr. Stanley did just that. Last month, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that threw out that lawsuit. A new trial on many of the same claims Mr. Caperton made in 1998 lies ahead.

Mr. Fawcett and Mr. Stanley were on to Mr. Blankenship long before most and have done their best to hold him accountable. That is no small task and Mr. Leamer does their dogged pursuit justice.


Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941. First Published May 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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