Cash in the Courtroom: Hugh Caperton's Personal View

One of the greatest challenges in discussing fair, impartial courts is putting a human face to the issue. Protecting the courts is clearly important, but who really is affected when the scales of justice are tilted by special interest money?

Last week, Hugh Caperton (photo) presented one of the most eloquent answers I have ever heard. Speaking at a Justice at Stake dinner in Washington, Caperton spoke of how a dispute between two coal mining companies led to the landmark Supreme Court case, Caperton v. Massey. And he laid out how the seemingly theoretical issue of special-interest influence in the courthouse can have a shattering impact on real lives.

Hugh’s speech (full text is here) included these thoughts:

The 14th amendment to the Constitution grants every citizen the right to due process of the law … a fair trial in a fair tribunal. It doesn’t say some citizens, or citizens with lots of money, or citizens who support special interest groups that are spending millions on judicial elections. … It says every citizen. …

We had only one clear goal in this monumental struggle and that was justice … pure and simple. Justice for myself, justice for my companies and justice for my employees who had lost their jobs. Little did I know at the time that justice would be so very difficult to obtain. I also didn’t know that the price of injustice was far greater than I could have ever imagined.

I am now 55 years old. It’s been thirteen years since my case with Massey began. I have lost my business and almost everything I own. Because of Massey and Don Blankenship’s stranglehold and intimidation over the Central Appalachian coal industry, it is nearly impossible for me to find employment in the industry that I was born into. In spite of all of this, I will continue to fight to cure the injustices that have been heaped on top of me. …

In one particularly touching sequence, Caperton thanked James Sample (photo), then a Brennan Center for Justice counsel and now a Hofstra University law professor, who befriended Caperton during the marathon legal case:

I am sorry that James Sample couldn’t be here tonight. I owe so much to this man. His efforts while at the Brennan Center in bringing together and coordinating this array of diverse business, judicial and advocacy groups in support of our Supreme Court argument went above and well beyond the call of duty. I am forever grateful to his continued support.

James and I have had many discussions about the issues facing all of us in this cause. … The one thing I am in his ear constantly about and I’m sure he gets tired of hearing it, is the need to somehow, some way educate the public in a way that brings the issue of fair courts into the mainstream much as the debates over unemployment, national security and illegal immigration dominate headlines today.

All of these are important issues facing our nation today. But are any of those more important than the issue of fair courts or massive campaign spending in our judicial elections? The answer is no and I implore you to do everything within your power to move this discussion from the legal community, who for the most part get it, to the ordinary citizen who for the most part doesn’t realize the problems that exist in our courts today. I know this because I was one of those ordinary citizens who just a few years ago had no clue about the inequities that occur in our legal system. Believe me, I got educated. I got my PHD.

If we can somehow win over and convince the public just how critical their 14th amendment rights are, then, I believe, we can begin to see real change in our judicial system.

James Sample, who could not attend the dinner, expressed his own gratitute and admiration for Caperton:

“The injustices suffered by Hugh and his family are Kafkaesque, and much deeper than known by those who think of “Caperton” only in terms of the issues addressed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Hugh and his family have a resolute faith and determination, however, that not only endures, but represents the ideals of America. For decades to come, citizens who care about the rule of law will owe Hugh and his family immeasurably.”

Again, the full text to Hugh Caperton’s speech is here. To learn more of the Caperton v. Massey case, see these earlier Gavel Grab stories, or this Justice at Stake online resource page.

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