CALA: Starcher again an embarrassment

John O'Brien Oct. 4, 2007, 12:39pm



CHARLESTON, W. Va. - Citing his long history of creating headlines from behind the bench that began in a high-profile rape case almost 14 years ago, a West Virginia legal watchdog group on Wednesday called for the resignation of state Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse says Starcher should also be sanctioned by the state Bar for his latest controversy, calling attention to the heritage of an airline company's counsel in a discrimination appeal.

"Justice Starcher has undermined the public's respect for the state's highest court, turning it into a profane and biased mockery of justice," said Steve Cohen, CALA's executive director. "He should resign and be sanctioned by the Bar for his outrageous conduct."

Starcher referred to Shareeza Altaf, co-counsel for Colgan Air, as "window dressing" and an "argument prop." The airline was defending itself against a claim that it fired a Pakistani pilot because of his nationality.

During a Sept. 18 hearing before the Supreme Court at Marshall University, Starcher asked Colgan attorney Mark Dombroff if Altaf, his co-counsel, was Pakistani descent. Dombroff replied that she is, and Starcher dropped his writing instrument on the table and leaned back in his chair.

"That's what I thought," Starcher replied, as the crowd shrieked and gasped.

After Colgan filed a motion to disqualify Starcher from the case, he responded, saying, "I simply chose to 'call Mr. Dombroff's hand' by pointing out what I consider the 'argument prop,' the 'window dressing' that he was using -- hoping to enhance his argument, in my opinion."

Starcher could be accused of condoning the same tactics earlier in his career.

As a circuit judge in Monongalia County, he presided over the 1993 trial of Jack Hawkins, who was accused of raping three West Virginia University students.

On Dec. 16, attorney Linda Gutsell, then of Spilman, Thomas and Battle, overheard a phone conversation between Starcher and an assistant prosecuting attorney. Gutsell testified that she heard Starcher coaching the prosecution, specifically saying that it needed to pack the courtroom with the victims, a police officer and some female attorneys.

Also, Gutsell said he told the prosecutor to be more emotional before the jury and use the term "serial rapist" more.

Hawkins was found guilty but a defense attorney filed a complaint against him. Eventually, he was reprimanded because of the ex parte communication he initiated, and Hawkins was given a new trial. Again, Hawkins was found guilty.

In 1995, the Supreme Court compared his case with one against Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman, who had called the president of Charleston Area Medical Center to ensure he would be at the next hearing of a case against CAMC before Kaufman.

"In the case before us, we recognize, as in Kaufman, that a distinction exists between the fact that an ex parte communication occurred, and the content of that communication," the Court wrote.

"As Kaufman states: 'The very act of talking to one party without the presence of the other creates an ex parte situation.' Nevertheless, this Court would be remiss in not considering the content of the communication between Judge Starcher and the assistant prosecuting attorney.

"The communication herein was more egregious than in Kaufman. It was less ambiguous than the conversation between Judge Kaufman and the president of CAMC. Here, Judge Starcher admittedly initiated the telephone conversation in order to advise the State upon the manner in which its closing argument should be conducted in the Hawkins trial."

Starcher defended his actions by saying the trial was long and tiring, and he felt the defense was taking over his courtroom. He publicly admitted the allegations and apologized.

CALA says the Colgan Air issue is just the latest in a long line of avoidable incidents, which includes a public tiff with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and an admonishment from the Court for making a phone call to ask for a campaign endorsement in 1996.

"Justice Starcher's most inappropriate comments about Ms. Altaf are another example of his gross disrespect, not only for others, but for the judicial process," Cohen said.

"He tells a national newspaper a fellow justice (Brent Benjamin) is bought and paid for (by Blankenship, who spent several million dollars on Benjamin's campaign). He calls a party (Blankenship) in a case pending before the Court 'stupid' and a 'clown.'"

CALA also notes a report in the Charleston Gazette that details an exchange between Starcher and the attorney for former magistrate Katherine Santucci. Starcher asked the attorney in 2001 if Santucci was still a magistrate, and the attorney said she had been defeated in an election.

"I never could stand the bitch," Starcher said, according to the report.

Starcher also "cussed at a delegate serving on the House Judiciary Committee over inaction on a measure that would have raised his pay," CALA says.

Starcher could not be reached for comment. He declined an interview request last week.

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