Justice Starcher has nothing to add in recusal controversy

John O'Brien Oct. 5, 2007, 2:20pm


CHARLESTON, W. Va. - West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher has again refused to step down from a pending case Friday, filing his second response to motions submitted by an airline company.

Colgan Air thinks Starcher gave the appearance of impropriety when he questioned the company's motives for hiring an attorney of Pakistani descent to represent it in a discrimination case filed a Pakistani former employee.

"I again respectfully decline to recuse myself from this matter..." Starcher wrote Friday. "I have and can continue to fairly sit on this matter -- through its conclusion, and correctly and fairly apply the law.

"I respectfully decline to step aside."

Starcher's second response was much shorter than his first. In it, he referred to Shareeza Altaf, co-counsel for Colgan Air, as "window dressing" and an "argument prop."

"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 wrote.

The airline had requested his recusal following a Sept. 18 hearing at Marshall University. There, Starcher asked Colgan attorney Mark Dombroff if Altaf was of 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. Days later, Colgan moved to have him taken off the case.

"Justice Starcher's conduct during the oral argument of this matter violated Canons 1 and 3 of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct, and creates, at the very least, a serious appearance of impropriety that disqualifies Justice Starcher from deciding any matter in this appeal," Colgan attorney Brian Moore of Jackson Kelly wrote in the first motion to disqualify.

Starcher replied that at the Court's Decision Conference two days after the hearing, the justices discussed the issue and called the issue of recusal "likely moot."

"I want to assure Mr. Dombroff and Ms. Altaf that absolutely nothing I said during our Sept. 18 oral argument session should be construed to be a showing of bias or discrimination on my part toward their client, Colgan Air," Starcher added.

Altaf is an attorney from the Washington D.C. branch of Dombroff, Gilmore, Jacques and French. She was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 2003 and one of her listed practice areas is aviation defense, along with products liability, general negligence and insurance law.

Colgan says she has represented the company in many matters, and logged almost 500 hours in the Khan case. It also said Starcher's written response was even worse than his actions during the hearing when it filed its second motion.

The second motion adds nothing of substance to the first; therefore, I stand on the response I filed on Sept. 25," Starcher wrote.

"I still have no financial interest in this case, do not know any of the litigants and certainly have never socialized with any of the litigants, nor do I have personal knowledge of any disputed facts in the litigation."

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a legal watchdog group in the state, said Starcher is an embarrassment to the Court. A majority of the other justices voted to skip his turn as Chief Justice this year, electing Robin Davis to another year of duty.

"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."

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.

Starcher was reprimanded by the Court, then elected to it in 1996. His term expires next year.

While on the Supreme Court, his most public tiff has been with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Upset that Blankenship spent several million dollars on fellow Justice Brent Benjamin's campaign, Starcher has called Blankenship "stupid" and "a clown."

Massey has moved to have Starcher removed from all its cases, including the appeal of a $50 million Boone County verdict.

Starcher has not returned a Wednesday message seeking comment. He declined an interview request after Colgan's first motion.

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