Thursday, July 21, 2005
High court nominee lost Virginia case
Comments delivered by Supreme Court justice nominee John Roberts evoke memories among local lawyers.
Roberts delivered the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in a 1994 case, handled by Roanoke law firm Woods Rogers, that threatened to cost the United Mine Workers more than $50 million in fines. Roanoke lawyer Bill Poff of Woods Rogers said Roberts was recommended to his firm by Ken Starr, then a Washington lawyer who handled Supreme Court litigation. Starr later became the special prosecutor against President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky case.
"That was the first time I heard of John Roberts," Poff said. He and Frank Friedman, another Woods Rogers lawyer, "worked with Roberts on that case and were very much impressed with him."
"He grasped the case very quickly and argued it ably in the Supreme Court. He was dealing with a court that was very active at that time; it was peppering lawyers with a great deal of questions."
Roberts handled the questioning well, Poff said.
"He did indeed prove to be the bright young man he was reputed to be and did a creditable job with a case that turned out to be difficult. Our lack of success was no fault of his," Poff said.
The case involved $52 million in contempt-of-court fines during the United Mine Workers' 1989-90 strike in Southwest Virginia against the Pittston Coal Group.
Russell County Circuit Judge Donald McGlothlin Jr. had imposed the fines for the union's 400 violations of an injunction he issued, at Pittston's request, to restrict union picket-line activity.
The fines were upheld in 1992 by the Virginia Supreme Court, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the union's favor, saying the penalties were imposed without a proper hearing in Russell County.