Opinion

Taking quarrel in Blankenship case to a higher level

An editorial from The Dominion Post 

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Henry David Thoreau was asked on his deathbed whether he had made his peace with God.

He responded, “I never quarelled with my God.”

Some equate judges with the nearest thing to God on Earth. As a rule, we rarely dispute the decisions of judges on this page.

In the past decade, we have raised only one such real objection here —a change of venue decision by a Monongalia County Circuit Court judge.

However, this week we are compelled to object to Judge Irene Berger’s gag order she has imposed upon the trial of a former coal executive.

Berger represents the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, and is well respected in all corners of the state, including in this region.

Yet, her gag order in the case against the former Massey Energy CEO and president, Don Blankenship, is terribly wrong- headed.

A host of media representatives, including the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, National Public Radio and others, challenged her gag order this week. We support this challenge.

The challenge asks the judge to modify her order, which prohibits all parties and victims from discussing this case with the media or releasing court documents.

That order not only excludes everyone who will play a part in this trial, but who even potentially might. Even more troubling is it puts all court documents off limits. That means “any and all stipulations, discovery requests, responses, supplemental requests and responses and other relevant documents,” according to the two-page order.

No one disputes the need for an impartial jury. That should be a matter of course in any trial. Period.

Obviously, this case is sensitive, too. Blankenship, stands accused of conspiring to violate safety and health standards at the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 men lost their lives in an explosion.

He is also charged with lying to regulators about safety measures at that mine. He pleaded not guilty and is free on a $5 million bond.

We doubt few in this state are unaware of the tragedy that took place at that mine in April 2010, news of the investigations that followed or convictions of other mine officials.

Still, that’s not to say no West Virginian can be fair and base their verdict solely upon the evidence presented at this trial.

Berger provides no reason why a fair and impartial jury cannot be chosen without this gag order, either.

Among other things, this gag order also infringes on journalists’ constitutional rights to do their job.

We urge Berger to reconsider her order and let this trial proceed without objection to the public’s right to know.

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