Sustained Outrage

Here, after an unintended hiatus, is another installment of stories that caught our attention recently.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on whether supporters of a referendum to overturn Washington State’s domestic partner law could keep the names of 138,000 people who signed a petition secret, the Los Angeles Times reported. Justice Antonin Scalia remarked: “You know, you can’t run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known.” The petition’s signers fear repurcussions if their identities become public. The court’s ruling could effect campaign disclosure laws throughout the country, including West Virginia, which has faced successful lawsuits claiming that its revised campaign disclosure laws are unconstitutional.

A Cook County judge ruled Tuesday that there was no probable cause to arrest an off-duty Chicago police officer for driving under the influence after he was involved in a crash that killed two young men on Thanksgiving Day 2007, the Chicago Tribune reported. None of the four officers at the scene noticed any sign of John Ardelean being drunk, and neither did the EMT who responded, Circuit Judge Thomas Gainer noted. That conclusion was reached by a police lieutenant hours after the crash, when no probable cause existed to arrest Ardelean, according to the judge. In a subsequent article, columnist John Kass questioned Gainer’s ruling, noting that a civil attorney for one of the deceased men’s families had Ardelean’s phone records, which indicated that the off-duty officer called another police officer and the bar where he had been drinking, but never called 911 following the crash.

The decision by the San Diego Unified School System to buy a certain type of computerized whiteboards has drawn scrutiny from the FBI, reported Wednesday. Similar purchases in Florida and Iowa are also under federal investigation, according to the article. A spokeswoman for Promethean, the company that makes the whiteboards, said that she believes the company is a witness, and not the target, of the Florida and Iowa investigations.

Workers Memorial Day

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An oil skimmer cleans oil from a leaking pipeline that resulted from last week's explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Louisiana Tuesday, April 27, 2010.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
An oil skimmer cleans oil from a leaking pipeline that resulted from last week's explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Louisiana Tuesday, April 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Today is Workers Memorial Day, a moment to recall people who died or who were injured or were made ill on the job during the previous year.

A Presidential proclamation notes that this year is the 40th anniversary of both the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, “which promise American workers the right to a safe workplace and require employers to provide safe conditions.”

Of course, as this day passes, people are still mourning the loss of 29 miners at the April 5 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Raleigh County and 11 workers killed in the oil platform explosion off the coast of Louisiana on April 20. To that list, the White House adds seven more workers killed in a refinery explosion in Anacortes, Washington, on April 2 and four more workers killed in a power plant explosion in Middletown, Connecticut on Feb. 7.

These recent deaths have put workplace safety higher on our minds lately. But as President Obama’s proclamation points out, “most workplace deaths result from tragedies that claim one life at a time through preventable incidents or disabling disease.”

That’s certainly what the Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. found. He has written about individual mine deaths for years, including this week.

Also, this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control featured new data on injuries and deaths among young workers, something for employers, parents and young workers to keep in mind at the start of the summer season. The rate of injury to workers aged 15 to 24 has decreased during the past 10 years, but not a significant amount.

Between 1998 and 2007, 5719 young workers died on the job, or about 572 a year. The rate is higher for Hispanic youth than non-Hispanic youth.

Young workers are also overrepresented in jobs with injury hazards, the CDC reports.

Time for another batch of stories that caught our attention this week:

Obesity now causes more deaths than smoking in Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported. New data from Western Australia show that the number of times excessive weight has been linked to ill health more than doubled in six years. In 2006, excessive weight accounted for 8.7 percent of disease. Tobacco had fallen to 6.5 percent.

Police in Louisville will soon receive subpoenas to appear in court electronically, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. An estimated 10 percent of the 100,000 paper subpoenas issued annually never reach the officers, which is one reason they fail to show up for court. Officials hope that the electronic upgrade will cut down on time-consuming paperwork and increase the officers’ accountability.

Facing a potential shortage of primary care doctors nationwide, nurse practitioners may take a larger role in seeing and caring for patients, The Associated Press reported. Studies suggest that the quality of care is very comparable between doctors and nurse practitioners, according to the article. However, the American Medical Association remains concerned about patient safety if nurse practitioners are given more authority over patients.

Another Thursday means another dose of things that caught our eye this week:

1aharkinminesafety_I100320161520Given the deadly explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal on Monday, a story of a few weeks ago remains painfully timely. At a mine safety conference at Wheeling Jesuit University, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration reported that fewer than one in 10 mines across the country had installed communications and tracking equipment required by the 2006 MINER Act. The requirement was intended to help miners escape in case of fire or explosion. At Upper Big Branch, the equipment had been partly installed. Who knows if fully installed equipment would have helped rescuers locate the missing miners in this case, but what about hundreds of other mines across the country?

Too many papers to grade? A biz prof at the University of Houston upped the amount of writing required of students, but found that she and her teaching assistants were too pressed for time to give valuable detailed feedback to students, so she outsourced the grading to a Virginia-based company. Much of the actual grading and critiquing is done in places such as Bangalore, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Compounds in food cans, but also in nail polish and shampoo have been linked to early puberty in girls, setting them up for diabetes and other health problems, reports the Telegraph in London. The stuff is even found in coatings on medicines and vitamins.

Do campaign dollars sway judges?

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The Brennan Center for Justice‘s Adam Skaggs published an interesting article titled “Judging for Dollars” in The New Republic over the weekend. It’s another look at judicial elections in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court‘s 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case.

Refreshingly, the article’s starting point is not the 2004 West Virginia state Supreme Court election that saw Brent Benjamin unseat Warren McGraw, with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spending millions of his own money on anti-McGraw campaign advertising. (Blankenship’s outsize contributions later caused the U.S. Supreme Court to order Benjamin to step down from an appeal involving Massey.)

Instead, Skaggs highlights a Supreme Court race in Illinois during the same year, in which candidates raised a record $9.4 million. (By contrast, Supreme Court candidates in West Virginia, with a population roughly one seventh the size of Illinois’, raised $2.8 million in 2004.)

And the circumstances surrounding the Illinois race (which could easily apply to the legal climate here) were not an anomaly, Skaggs wrote:

The eye-popping fundraising resulted from a parade of special interests on both sides of the “tort wars.” The fifth district had been known for large damage awards against corporate interests, and the election’s winner was expected to play a crucial role on a closely divided Illinois supreme court. Trial lawyers funneled millions to [Gordon] Maag, while [Lloyd] Karmeier got buckets of cash from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Karmeier also got a boost from a company with a very real interest in the race’s outcome: State Farm Insurance Company, which happened to be appealing a damage award of more than $450 million. Karmeier got $350,000 in contributions from employees, lawyers, and others directly involved with State Farm and another $1 million from larger groups affiliated with the company. After he won the election, Karmeier cast the deciding vote that saved State Farm roughly a half-billion dollars.

The Illinois election wasn’t an anomaly. In the last decade, state judicial elections across the country have evolved from quiet, civil contests into extravagant affairs with exorbitant spending, mud-slinging, and bitter personal attacks. Special interests in particular have helped engineer many of these races, pouring money into campaign coffers and negative TV ads. For instance, in a 2006 race in Washington—the most expensive judicial election that state had ever seen—every TV spot was paid for by a special interest group. As an Ohio AFL-CIO official put it, “We figured out a long time ago that it’s easier to elect seven judges than to elect one hundred and thirty-two legislators.”

According to polls cited by Skaggs, three out of four Americans (and almost one in two judges) think campaign contributions affect the way judges rule in cases. And a 2006 New York Times study of Ohio justices suggests that there is a correlation between contributions and votes, Skaggs noted:

The study found that, over a twelve-year period, Ohio justices (including Pfiefer) routinely sat on cases after having received campaign contributions from the parties involved. And, in those cases, the judges voted in favor of their contributors in seven cases out of ten. One justice voted for his contributors 91 percent of the time.

Skaggs praises states that, like West Virginia during the just-ended Legislative session, have enacted public financing for judicial elections.

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Secret meetings, April 2, 2010

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It’s another good week  for open government in West Virginia, at least as far as compliance with the public notice requirements of the open meeting act go.  For the third week in a row, no meetings posted in the State Register violate the public notice requirements.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

Here’s our weekly look at stories and developments that attracted our attention this week:

Daniel Gilbert of the Bristol Herald Courier produced a lengthy series about a myriad of problems with Virginia’s system for handling royalties from natural gas drilling operations in the state’s southwestern counties. The series, Underfoot, Out of Reach, was among the winners announced this week of the annual Investigative Reporter and Editors journalism contest. Among the other winners and finalists was the Gazette’s Eric Eyre, a finalist for his series of articles about fraud in the Workforce West Virginia agency.

In the wake of two recent fatal shootings by police officers, Portland’s City Council voted unanimously to adopt changes to the city’s independent police oversight division, the Oregonian reported. The reforms included authorizing the city auditor, rather than the chief of police, to nominate citizens to the police review board. The oversight division’s director now has to sign off on all internal affairs investigations, and the division has the authority to initiate investigations of police misconduct of its own accord.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is considering changing its policy and disclosing details of its investigations into alleged wrongdoing by individuals and firms even when cases settle before trial, according to this story in the Washington Post. Traditionally, when individuals and companies settle SEC lawsuits, few details become public. The prosposed changes might discourage wrongdoers from settling, warn critics, but supporters maintain that more transparency will help restore public confidence in the regulatory agency and its enforcement.