Environmental Law

Judge Disqualified in Mining Case Once Represented Defendant


A judge in West Virginia has been disqualified from continuing to hear a case alleging groundwater pollution because he once represented one of the defendants—while still a practicing lawyer and before assuming the bench—in a case that involved expert testimony on how blasting affects underground geology.

The case against Massey Energy Co. and its subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing, alleges that coal slurry injected into worked-out mines seeped into groundwater and contaminated wells. One of the hundreds of residents on whose behalf the current litigation is being pursued was a plaintiff in the earlier case, which alleged blasting damage, according to the Charleston Gazette and the Associated Press.

Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury should not preside over the upcoming trial in the case, acting W. Va. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis said in a ruling this week, because his onetime representation of Rawl Sales, several decades ago, could create an appearance of impropriety.

She cited “the temporal and geographical relationship between the prior matter and the allegations and defenses in the current litigation,” the Gazette reports.

The disqualification follows a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court case this year in which the nation’s highest court held that a justice on the state supreme court should have disqualified himself from involvement in a case concerning Massey Coal Co. because he accepted $3 million in campaign contributions from a company executive.

Related earlier coverage

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court: CEO’s Big Judicial Contributions Require Judge’s Recusal”

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