Hugh Caperton had a pretty sweet life in 1997 when he ruined it by cutting a deal with the devil. Or not the devil, exactly, but a businessman named Don Blankenship, who might as well be Beelzebub for the way he’s characterized in The Price of Justice, a new book about epic legal battles in the coal country of West Virginia. It all started something like this:
Caperton, the second cousin of former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, had bought a small coal-mining company and was trying to build it up. The company was dependent on a single industrial customer, which used the coal to run coke furnaces for making steel. But then Blankenship’s Massey Coal bought that customer and decided to shut down the coke furnaces. Left without a customer, Caperton decided that the only option was to sell his company to Blankenship.
Blankenship bargained him down, on the price, to a fraction of what the hapless Caperton thought the value was. Then, with his foot basically on Caperton’s throat, Blankenship walked away. No deal. Caperton had to declare bankruptcy, and Blankenship had the chance to get his company after all – for basically nothing – and fire all the union miners.
Caperton summoned the courage to sue his powerful opponent, claiming Blankenship had manufactured the crisis that led to his bankruptcy.
The conflict culminated in a case that has become an icon of damaged justice.
Washington writer Laurence Leamer puts the notorious episode into the context of a truly operatic fight by two lawyers to challenge Blankenship’s power. They were seeking justice not only for Caperton but also for hundreds of exploited miners and their families. Leamer’s habit of making the players into stark figures of good and evil – actually comparing the black-clad Blankenship to Darth Vader in a court appearance – makes it easy to find your way through the complicated legal bits.
The two Pittsburgh lawyers who came to Caperton’s rescue had something to prove. The first, Dave Fawcett, worked for a prestigious firm but had never quite measured up to his dad. His eventual partner, Bruce Stanley, was a humble West Virginia boy trying to both escape from and vindicate his roots. Together they were a duo of goofy do-gooders – Fawcett celebrated one victory by rolling on the grass outside court – taking on a terribly dangerous opponent.
Leamer’s prose is not elegant; he often relies on trite shorthand descriptions. One legal client was a mountain woman who had never traveled far beyond her hollow, while another client’s husband was strong, brawny, honest, and self-reliant, a model of Appalachian virtue before the coal companies and the dole arrived.
But the story moves, driven by a sense of injustice that seems heartfelt. At one point Fawcett is scouting out a sad little town where a hearing is to take place. He notes that, back in Pittsburgh, the lords of the steel industry at least dressed things up with fancy museums and libraries. Here, the parking lots were gravel, and even the few sidewalks in town were crumbling. Fawcett was a Republican perfectly comfortable with what he viewed as the natural inequalities among men, but this was different. Billions of dollars had been taken out of these hills, but what had the people gotten except gravel? As he walked these coarse streets, he recognized that the Caperton case was not really just about Hugh Caperton and the Harman mine. It was about this region and what had gone wrong.
The tale takes more twists and turns than a country road. You really couldn’t make this stuff up: Caperton wins when things look hopeless, has setbacks when things seem assured – and through it all, the level of villainy attributed to Blankenship is stupefying.
A few years after most of the action in the book, Blankenship and Massey Coal achieved a new level of notoriety when the Upper Big Branch mine disaster claimed the lives of 29 men who worked for them. The Price of Justice makes that calamity seem part of an infuriatingly predictable pattern.