Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Price of Justice: A True Story of Two Lawyers' Epic Battle Against Corruption and Greed in Coal Country, by Laurence Leamer

Times Books/Henry Holt, 2013
448 pp

(arc: thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewers program  and to the publisher for my copy)

"A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a fundamental constitutional right...That means not only the absence of actual bias, but a guarantee against even the probability of an unfair tribunal." (334)

When I first requested this book from LibraryThing I thought it sounded interesting, and once I picked it up, I didn't realize just how blah a word "interesting" would come to be in this case. That cliché about not being able to put the book down was absolutely true for me. I'll get right to the point and say that this is one of the most outstanding books I've read this year. Coming on the heels of Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, you can believe that The Price of Justice was a powerful read.  It reads much like a legal thriller, but this story of corporate greed, judicial and political corruption, and sheer, unmitigated disregard for human life in return for one man's drive for greater profit in the coal industry is all too real.

While there are several issues covered in this work of investigative journalism, at the heart of this story is the question of whether or not corporations should be allowed to fund the very court justices who are involved in rulings involving the corporation, by the question of correctness in allowing the justice in question to remain as a judge. In this instance, it all started with a verdict handed down by a West Virginia court in the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal Company. Mr. Caperton had sued Massey because it had canceled its contract with Harman Mining to supply Harman with needed coal. Caperton, the owner of Harman, was severely affected by Massey's fraudulent cancellation, and his company went out of business.  He found himself in huge trouble and a mounting pile of debts including miners' pension funds.  His attorneys, Bruce Stanley and Dave Fawcett, worked hard to get Caperton an award for damages;  Massey, headed by Don Blankenship, appealed the decision and the case was set to be ruled on by the West Virginia Supreme Court.  However, before the judgment could be appealed, an election of a new WV Supreme Court Justice was underway, and Blankenship set up a nonprofit through which he was able to contribute millions to eliminate the incumbent (Warren McGraw) and bring in someone he knew would take his side in the case. Although legally not allowed to directly support his candidate of choice (Brent Benjamin), Blankenship used the money to pay for a slur campaign against McGraw.  Even though Blankenship's participation in the campaign against McGraw came to light, the appeals trial continued with Benjamin as a justice, and ended up in Massey's favor.  Later developments would take the case right up to the US Supreme Court, but as Leamer notes, the battle was far from over. In the meantime, Massey (and Blankenship) was allowed to continued its fraudulent practices while the utter disdain for following mandated safety and environmental measures led to tragedy among many mine workers and their families.

For several reasons the topics involved in this  book struck a personal chord. I wish I could say that I was surprised at some of the blatant misdeeds going on in the courts and among politicians as outlined by Mr. Leamer in this most excellent book, but frankly, I'm not. Aside from those issues, I was also deeply disturbed by the blatant disregard that this one man in the coal industry showed for his workers and other human beings whose lives were turned upside down, ruined or extinguished by his unscrupulous business & political practices. His absolute control was backed up by threats, intimidation, money and protection from court officials and politicians who looked out for their own financial and political interests, rather than for the interests of the victims. Had the above-mentioned subjects been all there was to this book, it still would have been good, but Mr. Leamer also examines the price paid in personal terms by everyone involved on the side of obtaining justice, including the dedicated attorneys fighting this man for over 14 years.

Other reviewers of The Price of Justice have correctly noted that this book reads like a legal thriller, and while I'm not a huge fan of that genre, the book kept me turning pages until the very end. Definitely and highly recommended -- absolutely one of the best books I've read this year. 

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