An energy company executive in West Virginia who has lambasted his prosecution and conviction on mine-safety conspiracy charges lost his effort in the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to revive his challenge.
Donald Blankenship, the former chief executive of coal giant Massey Energy Co., was convicted at trial on a misdemeanor charge and sentenced to a year in jail and a $250,000 fine. He was released from custody in May. His company owned the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, which was the site in April 2010 of the deadliest coal mine disaster in decades—a coal dust explosion that killed 29 miners. The mine had a history of safety violations.
The justices rejected his petition, filed by Zuckerman Spaeder’s William Taylor III, without comment.
The petition claimed that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was wrong to hold that a person “willfully” violates a mine safety standard if he acts in reckless disregard of the standard’s requirements. The high court’s past precedents, Taylor argued, required at a minimum actual knowledge that his conduct was unlawful.
Taylor had urged the high court to summarily reverse the lower court because its rationale could be applied in future cases—especially in cases against corporate officials—to any criminal statute that criminalizes only willful conduct.
“This case stemmed from a rush to judgment at the highest levels of the federal government,” Taylor told the Supreme Court. “It was permeated throughout with unchecked abuses of power by prosecutors intent on securing a conviction by any means possible in order to assign to petitioner blame for a terrible tragedy. This prosecution begs for scrutiny by this court.”
Blankenship, writing in May in an open letter about his case, said: “The Supreme Court only agrees to hear a small percentage of cases brought to it. This case begs to be one of those cases that the Court agrees to hear. The First Amendment right to free speech and the American judicial system’s integrity are both at issue.”
The U.S. Justice Department, then led by Jeffrey Wall, the acting U.S. solicitor general, had urged the justices not to review Blankenship’s case.
The Supreme Court’s decision comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with its repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, a set of sweeping regulations blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequently put on hold by a Washington federal appeals court.
“The war on coal is over,” EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt declared on Monday.