The West Virginia coal mine that exploded this week and killed 25 workers has a less than pleasing legal back story. Upper Big Branch mine, operated by the Performance Coal Company, is a subsidiary of Massey Energy. That should ring a bell for lawyers and academics as the company owned by Don Blankenship, who was at the heart of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Caperton v. Massey — a case involving Blakenship’s alleged control of the West Virginia bench through massive campaign contributions.
Blankenship is widely viewed as a corrupting influence in West Virginia where he uses his considerable wealth to place judges and legislators in key positions. As if to fulfill his reputation as the Mr. Montgomery Burns of West Virginia, he is quoted by ABC as saying if you take photos, “you’re liable to get shot.” (here).
The mine involved in the recent explosion has had a history of safety infractions and citations. Since 1984, it has amassed a huge number of such citations, including 57 infractions just last month for violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow a ventilation plan.
Blankenship is often accused of skirting safety regulations and fighting such fines. One of his subsidiaries agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines just last year. He seems, however, all too willing to give money to West Virginia politicians and judges.
In the 2009 decision, Justice Kennedy wrote for a 5-4 majority that Blakenship’s massive contributions to Judge Brent Benjamin required the judge to recuse himself from cases involving Massey due to the “serious risk of actual bias.” The Due Process Clause required the recusal of Judge Brent Benjamin, according to the majority.
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