Gazette-Mail editorial: No reason for judge in opioid cases to step down

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Aaron Polster, the man presiding over more than 2,000 lawsuits from across the country (including the state of West Virginia and several West Virginia municipalities and county governments) against companies that fueled the opioid crisis, shouldn’t be required to take himself off the case.

The companies have asked Polster to dismiss himself as the first trial is about a month away, claiming the judge’s perceived eagerness to set up settlement plans and Polster’s own authority over damage amounts, should a trial go against the defendants, show the judge is biased.

They also point to remarks Polster made about settlement funds going toward addiction recovery efforts and further help to the communities ravaged by the epidemic. These are the same defendants who attempted to block the release of records of massive pill shipments, which were eventually obtained through a court order, thanks to attorneys for The Washington Post and Gazette-Mail.

Polster has said he’s not stepping down, and we see no reason why he should.

As Polster himself said, commenting generally on how this crisis has affected communities across the nation “does not suggest I am biased. It shows that I am human.”

Make no mistake, Polster is in a difficult and delicate situation, trying to steer what some reports have called the most complex civil action in the history of the United States. One of the reasons he’s so eager to get companies and plaintiffs to settle is that the sheer volume of cases would completely swamp the legal system, adding “most of the defendants would be forced into bankruptcy, simply because of the litigation costs.”

Polster also pointed out that it would be next to impossible to get another judge up to speed on this massive undertaking, with the first trials about 30 days away.

If Polster were clearly and completely biased, this argument wouldn’t hold much sway. A compromised or conflicted judge should step aside, whether the trial is tomorrow or a year from now. But nothing these companies have produced shows Polster is either of those things, and, indeed, replacing him at this point would be a logistical nightmare.

Seeking a recusal from a judge isn’t all that uncommon. If civil defense attorneys can find any scab to pick at to delay, derail or end the litigation altogether, they will try. That’s what they’re paid to do. If any of these particular cases go to a jury trial, and a jury rules against the defendants, it’s all but guaranteed their attorneys will make various motions to get the verdict tossed on various procedural grounds. That’s to be expected of any lawyer worth their salt.

But even mundane legal maneuvers in Polster’s court will be reported and scrutinized nationally, simply because this civil action is so unprecedented.

Funerals for Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ball, Sherman - 2 p.m., Spencer Chapel United Methodist Church.

Clay, Karen - Noon, Koontz Funeral Home, Hamlin.

Clonch, Daniel - 1 p.m., O'Dell Funeral Home, Montgomery.

Harvey, Joseph - 11 a.m., Donel C. Kinnard State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

McClung, L. Bruce - Noon, Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Charleston.

Mills, Ambra - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Pitsenbarger, Cindy - 7 p.m., Solid Rock Worship Center, Oak Hill.

Sowards, Teresa - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Stilwell, Jason - 3 p.m., Strange Creek Cemetery, Strange Creek.

Vacheresse, Robert - 12:30 p.m., procession to leave Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston.

Vaughan, Darlene - 10 a.m., Cross Lanes Baptist Church, Cross Lanes.