Starcher says controversial comments hit wrong target

John O'Brien Dec. 7, 2007, 2:00pm


CHARLESTON, W. Va. - West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher apologized Thursday to the attorney to whom he recently referred as "window dressing" because of her Pakistani descent.

Starcher explained in a concurring opinion in the discrimination case of a fired Pakistani pilot that there may have been a better way to word his feelings about the actions of Colgan Air lead counsel Mark Dombroff.

He asked Dombroff during oral arguments if co-counsel Shaleeza Altaf was of Pakistani descent. When he replied she is, Starcher replied, "That's what I thought," then responded to Colgan's motion to disqualify him from the case by calling Altaf an "argument prop" and "window dressing."

"I did not ask this question intending to embarrass Ms. Altaf because of her national origin; I intended to emphasize that Mr. Dombroff's argument style had crossed the line from reasoned to theatrical," Starcher wrote.

"My question did not reflect bias against Colgan Air, or bias against people of Pakistani origin; it reflected a bias against pomposity by lawyers appearing before appellate tribunals."

Rao Zahid Khan, arguing that he was fired because of his national origin and not because he failed a field test, unanimously lost his appeal in October.

"(T)he degree of inability showed by Mr. Khan to conduct an airplane in a safe manner was egregious, and retraining would present safety issues," the opinion says.

Starcher said he originally thought of Altaf's presence as that of a "bag carrier," the junior associate who does all the work while the senior associate takes all the credit. Once Dombroff opened his mouth, though, Starcher began to question his motives.

He said Dombroff gave a "a finger-pointing, I-dare-you-to-rule-this-way" presentation.

"Mr. Dombroff's argument was, essentially, that Colgan Air never engaged in discrimination, only certain bad apples in its employ engaged in discrimination," he wrote. "But, Mr. Dombroff's argument took a personal form: He argued that 'we' think Mr. Khan was a victim of pernicious misconduct, that even so 'we' didn't discriminate, and 'we' got rid of the bad apples as soon as Mr. Khan drove all the way to Manassas, Va., to report the discrimination.

"And at this point, Ms. Altaf's presence looked very much out of place. Ms. Altaf didn't look like the junior associate who did all the work on the case; instead, she looked like a prop or window dressing for Mr. Dombroff's argument that 'we' didn't do anything to discriminate against Mr. Khan because of his Pakistani origin and, therefore, 'we' shouldn't have to pay Mr. Khan any money for his suffering."

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.

Starcher says the company should have had to pay Khan monetary damages and attorneys fees because of the harassment he took from fellow employees, but agreed he was fired for valid reasons.

The facts of the case state that Khan was subjected to discriminatory treatment by some of his coworkers, as he was called a "sand nigger," "rag head" and "camel jockey."

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