Schmuck of the Week

Supreme Court justices are silent -- and shmucky -- on Rocky Flats decision

For years, people living around the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant wondered if the secret operations at that facility could somehow be endangering the health of people and animals living nearby.

And the FBI's spectacular dawn raid of Rocky Flats in June 1989, certainly didn't do much for property values.

In 1990, property owners filed a class-action suit against the operators of Rocky Flats, charging that the plant had affected both the health and welfare of nearby residents. By the time Merilyn Cook, et al., vs. Rockwell International Corporation and Dow Chemical finally went to trial in U.S. District Judge John Kane's courtroom in late 2005, more than 12,000 people had signed onto the class-action suit -- and some of the original plaintiffs had passed away.

After months of testimony and weeks of deliberation, the ten-member jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them $554 million, a record judgment in this state.

Even though both Rockwell and Dow were indemnified by the government as operators of Rocky Flats, they appealed -- arguing that Kane had improperly instructed the jury and claiming that scientific studies have shown no harm to residents' health or property. The appeals court agreed, and threw out the jury's verdict, which by then had grown to $926 million.

So the plaintiffs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. "A landowner whose property is devalued because of plutonium contamination has suffered both an invasion of his property and genuine, immediate economic harm," the lawyers argued.

This week, the court has released a flurry of controversial, high-profile opinions, most of them backed by voluminous arguments. But one decision -- or, actually, lack of a decision -- received almost no attention. On Monday, the court declined, without comment, to consider reinstating the $926 million judgment.

After 22 years, the plaintiffs deserved at least an explanation of this inaction -- and for refusing to offer one, the Supreme Court justices earn our Shmuck of the Week award.

More from our Shmuck of the Week archive: "Stapleton HOA draws the shmucky line on sidewalk chalk art."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun