Living up to 'Your Honor'

By The West Virginia Record | Mar 23, 2007

They spend their days elevated, literally, don priest-like flowing robes and command automatic deference while on the job. So it arrives as no surprise that your average judge, almost universally, comes burdened by an outsized ego.

So color us ultra-impressed by the sense of humility displayed last week by Raleigh Circuit Judge John Hutchison. As reported by our Steve Korris, he kiboshed a long-awaited, long-fought jury verdict, citing his own mistakes as to blame.

That's right -- Judge Hutchison said the trial, in which southern West Virginia property owners are blaming logger Western Pocahontas Corp. for damage caused by a 2001 flood, requires a do-over. The verdict, issued last May, is tainted. And it's all his fault.

At issue is the testimony of two "experts," environmental engineer Bruce Bell and mining consultant John Morgan, who the judge says weren't as qualified as they said they were.

"The jury was exposed to irrelevant, improper and salacious evidence, which they should not have heard," Hutchison wrote. "The Plaintiffs' entire case was designed to inflame the jury."

And inflame it did, leveraging what the judge dubbed "junk science" to convince the jury that someone -- anyone -- should take blame for the extraordinary acts of Mother Nature on July 8, 2001. According to meteorologists, that day's heavy rainfall -- as much as seven inches over just a few hours -- occurs but every 1,000 years.

At the behest of plaintiff's lawyer Scott Segal of Charleston, Bell and Morgan told the court that Western Pocahontas cut down trees that would have stopped the rain from swelling a small stream, which in turned bloated a larger river that would overflow its banks and damage the homes of plaintiffs. They suggested the company could have prevented or minimized the flood damage, but they opted against it.

The jury heard these opinions, represented as the results of scientific observation and inquiry. But there was nothing scientific about them.

In this "technically complex" case, Hutchison conceded he didn't realize as much until after the trial; until after he had a chance to carefully review all the testimony. In hindsight, he realized Western Pocahontas didn't get a fair shake. Now he's laying his errors bare, for everyone to see.

"Your Honor" isn't just a handle -- it's an aspiration. Judges aren't infallible; they aren't supposed to be. They make mistakes, too. And they're at their very best when they prove big enough to openly admit them.

No doubt, Judge Hutchison is learning from the experience. Here's hoping the rest of West Virginia's judiciary sees the justice in his example.

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