Monday, February 11, 2013

Bruce Stanley's got an enormous chip on his shoulder that nothing can knock off. He's enraged that the legal and political system is his native state of West Virginia is so corrupt that the bad and the compromised often float to the top of the system while the true and the caring are just as often endlessly stymied. For the past 15 years, Stanley and his fellow Pittsburgh co-counsel Dave Fawcett have been fighting a two-person war against Don Blankenship, the chairman of Massey Energy, until its demise as the largest coal company in Appalachia.

Stanley has fought in new, different ways using the law as it has not been used before. In 2006 Stanley filed a lawsuit on behalf of Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, widows whose husband had died in a fire in the Massey-owned Aracoma mine in January of that year. It was a fire that happened because of Massey's egregious violations of state and federal mine safety regulations. Mandatory safety drills never took place though they were written up as if they had. The fire hoses in the mine near the fire did not work properly. The ventilation system had been compromised, fanning the fire's flames and filling the miners' primary escape way with roiling black smoke. While there were no criminal indictments of Massey executives, Aracoma paid massive fines and Stanley won a big settlement for the widows.

Stanley didn't stop there. He believed that the federal safety inspectors shared in the blame. He was convinced that they had either been bribed, had willfully looked the other way, or acted with criminal irresponsibility. But you can't just sue the federal government in a case like this. First, he filed an administrative claim with the U.S. Department of Labor. Anybody who knew anything about the law said that this was just Stanley off on his personal vendetta and he would get nowhere.

Showing its disdain for his apparently frivolous claim, the Department of Labor did not even bother to rule. After waiting two years with no answer, Stanley filed a civil suit against the U.S. government in Charleston, WV. Federal Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr ruled the way anyone in the West Virginia capital could have told Stanley he would rule. He agreed with the feds and dismissed the claim.

Stanley is not a ranting legal lunatic but a sophisticated, well-versed attorney. He appealed to the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that West Virginia law allows precisely the claim that he was seeking to make. All he asked -- if the court wasn't sure of the right and wrong of the issue -- is that they send it back to the Supreme Court of West Virginia for those five justices to decide. The federal judges agreed with him and last October sent the case to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

This is where he should have expected it to end. In my forthcoming book, The Price of Justice, to be published in May, I detail the corruption of the Supreme Court of West Virginia and its many disservices to the people of West Virginia. Stanley had taken on the court before, and there was no way the five justices were going to vote in his favor. Or so I thought.

Earlier this week the court voted 5-0 that "a safety inspector owes a duty of care to the employees whose safety the inspection is intended to secure." That may have been self-evident but it was an extraordinary moment that could prove one of the most important outcomes of the years of struggle against Massey.

Some people think the justices know what is coming out in The Price of Justice, and they are now trying to position themselves as true servants of the people and of justice. I don't know that that's the case. I do know that it's not only Bruce Stanley who has a victory here, but all the miners of West Virginia and anyone who cares for justice for everyone and who believes that no man is above the law.

The case goes back now to 87-year-old Judge Copenhaver who will have yet another chance to prove that he understands the nature of justice by finally allowing the Aracoma widows to call the US government to account.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Catherine "Kitty" Hougton and The Preciousness of Life

There is no greater gift than to know the preciousness of life. Once you realize it, every moment is enhanced and however long you live, you have a far longer life. Of all the people I have known, the person who grasped that essential fact the youngest and perhaps the most fully was Catherine "Kitty" Houghton. Kitty was an ebullient presence who danced through life as if in a dream, helping those who needed help and admiring the abilities and achievements of those who fell far short of her attainments, always with her sparkling, inquisitive eyes finding in life nothing but endless far horizons.

Kitty and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Nepal from 1964 to 1966. We were stationed in different parts of the kingdom in remote mountain villages several days from a road. You cannot live among the Nepalese without grasping one reality: When you die, your body may be burned in a pyre, but your spirit lives on, meshing with the world. I've thought of that reality often these last few days as I read the stories of how 70-year-old Kitty died. It reminds me that her manner of death doesn't matter, for in Nepal, you learn that individual life is but an instant over which we have the illusion of control, but life takes us and does what it wants with us -- and one day bids us goodbye.

Kitty never did just one thing, but several, each with passionate intensity. Last week, she flew across the country from her home in northern California to attend a board meeting of the White Mountain School in New Hampshire, where she attended high school. She was in the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Littleton, moving gracefully onward from one event to the next when a man came into the hotel and stabbed her to death. The sick, conspiratorial American mindset took hold and among the comments to the news stories are several about how Kitty must have known the 37-year-old man. No, she did not, it was a random knife in the night, and the man sits in jail pleading not guilty.
Kitty's unique quality had little to do with her Ph.D., the fourteen languages that she spoke, the superb skier that she was at the top of her Berkeley collegiate team, how she flew her small plane around the country the way you and I drive our cars, her abilities as a singer and musician, nothing about her accomplishments as top commercial officer in the Foreign Service.It was the human character. At the center of her personality was a profound modesty, unlike anyone I have ever known. I'm not talking about a studious, calculated modesty so useful in a career. I'm not talking about insecurity. I'm talking about someone who grasped her place in the universe. It was the mindset we all should have.

Beyond that -- and this was something that sometimes personally embarrassed me -- she was in awe of the accomplishments of others. She could do ten awesomely good things and I might do one, but it was my act she wanted to talk about and praise. She did some of the most daring things, but it was whatever I did that she insisted on talking about.

When Kitty and I went to Nepal in the Peace Corps in 1964, it was a time when it was unclear whether Americans could live in a place like the impoverished mountain kingdom and whether the Peace Corps was a short-lived quixotic idea or something that could live. It took a certain gumption for a young man to sign up and go to Nepal, but in those years, it took far more than that for a young woman to do so. Nothing troubled Kitty. Even in our training program in Oregon, she was always looking out for others, seeing how she could help.

I can still see Kitty in Kathmandu, when she got her assignment to one of the most remote and difficult of places. I can see her strapping on her Kelty pack and with that knowing smile that never seemed to leave her lips, heading off to face whatever life and fate would bring her. And so she did last week.