Starcher won't run for re-election in W. Va.

John O'Brien Dec. 20, 2007, 3:17pm


CHARLESTON, W. Va. - West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher on Thursday ended speculation by announcing that he will not be seeking re-election to a second term on the State's highest Court.

Starcher, who served for 20 years as a circuit court judge in Monongalia County, came to the Supreme Court in 1997. He served as Chief Justice in 1999 and 2003.

Starcher announced that he will not run in 2008 with a brief statement.

"By the end of next year, I will have served the West Virginia judiciary for 32 years. It has been an honor to have worked for the people of our State for so long. I am making this announcement because there are several very good candidates who have expressed interest in running for the Court in 2008. They need to know my intentions.

"For over three decades I have endeavored to serve all the people of our State. Next year the seats of two justices will be filled. It will be a very important election.

"I hope that we nominate true Democrats who will bring to the Court the dignity and stature that it enjoyed when justices like Thomas Miller, Tom McHugh, and Franklin Cleckley sat on the Court."

In recent years, Starcher has been a lightning rod for controversy.

Recently, Starcher refused to recuse himself from a case after drawing attention to Colgan Air counsel Shaleeza Altaf's Pakistani heritage in a discrimination case brought against it by a former Pakistani employee. He called Altaf an "argument prop" and "window dressing."

He later wrote that his comments weren't made to insult Altaf, but to call notice to lead counsel Mark Dombroff's grandstanding.

When Massey Energy sued the state Supreme Court because Starcher did not recuse himself from matters concerning Massey, it provided the following examples of his behavior:

* On Jan. 3, 2003, the State Journal reported that Starcher told a group of high school students visiting the state Capitol on Dec. 3, 2002, that coal companies were not good for the state because "they reap benefits without contributing anything in return." The complaint also states that Starcher singled out Massey in that criticism.

* Starcher criticized Massey in a public radio interview after the November 2004 election that saw Brent Benjamin - a Republican candidate personally supported by Massey CEO Don Blankenship - defeat incumbent Justice Warren McGraw for a seat on the Court.

"What we're going to see is we're gonna see Massey Coal and the big out-of-state insurance companies and huge mega-corporations buy a seat on our Supreme Court, and I'll be very sad to sit on the Supreme Court for the next four years, quite frankly," the complaint quotes Starcher's radio interview. "I hate to see out-of-state money be used in such an obscene way as it was in this race to buy a seat on the Supreme Court and attempt to control it. It saddens me very much."

* Before the election, Starcher also said that if Benjamin defeated McGraw, "Don Blankenship and the Massey Coal Company will own the West Virginia Supreme Court."

* At the 2005 annual conference of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, Starcher again spoke of Blankenship, Massey and the 2004 election.

"Justice McGraw was not opposed in the general election by some neophyte lawyer named Brent Benjamin," Starcher is quoted as saying. "He was opposed by a Richmond, Va., resident named Don Blankenship, who poked $4 million into defeating Justice Warren McGraw in (the) Supreme Court. Nobody ever heard of Brent Benjamin ... and he practiced law in Charleston for 20 years, I believe.

"So, really, the election was bought, a seat was purchased on our Supreme Court, and I'm highly offended by it. I'm highly offended by the obscene use of out-of-state money ...

"They tried to purchase a seat on our Supreme Court, and they succeeded. Coincidentally, Massey Coal, which Don Blankenship is a CEO, has a $60 million case on appeal in our court at this time. He has also - his coal company - has more EPA violations than all other coal companies put together in West Virginia. He has a very special interest in owning a seat on the Supreme Court."

In the complaint, Massey disputes some of Starcher's comments, noting that Blankenship has "spent most of his life in West Virginia." Also, it contends that Blankenship's participation in the political process - he spearheaded a group that backed Benjamin in the race - does not mean he "sought nor accomplished the goal of 'owning a seat on the Supreme Court.'"

Massey also says the statement about EPA violations is false.

* When Marfork sought to disqualify Starcher in a case in which Marfork sought review of a permitting decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Starcher denied the motion.

"True, I have said that, in my opinion, Massey has not been a good corporate citizen," Starcher wrote in the June 16, 2005, memorandum decision. "I read papers and form personal opinions as other people do."

Then, the complaint states, "after analogizing to prior cases before the court involving infamous behavior, including murder, drunk driving, child abuse and domestic violence, Justice Starcher concluded: 'So, as one can see, this is not the first time I have been asked to sit in judgment of a part for which I may have less than full respect ...'"

* On Oct. 26, 2005, Starcher was quoted in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph newspaper about Blankenship's participation in the political process.

"I think he has no real concern or interest in the betterment of West Virginia," Starcher told the paper. "I think he's simply on an egomaniac trip and is trying to better the bottom line of his coal company."

* The next day Starcher sent Blankenship a note in the mail that seemed to be in his own handwriting.

"Dear Mr. Blankenship," the note on Supreme Court stationery began. "Some reading information to help you 'keep the record straight.'"

It was signed by Starcher with the post script, "I paid the postage."

Attached was a copy of Starcher's curriculum vitae, a document written by Starcher entitled "an abbreviated autobiography" and a document containing Starcher's career biography, including a picture of Starcher.

The picture was autographed, "Best wishes to a 'fine West Virginian' ----- L. Starcher 10/27/05."

* The following day, Starcher spoke at the annual West Virginia Political Science Association meeting. He spoke to a local television reporter about Blankenship.

"I think he's a clown, and he's an outsider, and he's running around this state trying to buy influence like buying candy for children. And, I think it's disgusting. ...

"He's stupid. He doesn't know what he's talking about ... I'm certainly not afraid of him."

* Three days later, on Halloween 2005, Marfork renewed it disqualification of Starcher. He denied the motion without explanation.

* On April 5, 2006, the plaintiffs sought to have Starcher disqualified in the "$60 million case" Starcher commented on to the Virginia trial lawyers. Again, he refused to disqualify himself.

Earlier this year, the state's Supreme Court, in a 3-2 vote, overturned the trial court's ruling, letting Massey off the hook. Starcher wrote a dissenting opinion.

"Let's not forget why the jury's verdict was justified: the jurors looked Mr. Blankenship in the eye and concluded that he was lying, and that Mr. Caperton was telling the truth," Starcher wrote.

"The majority opinion says: 'That doesn't matter' - it all should have been handled in Virginia. To which argument, one must respond: 'Horse puckey!'"

Starcher called his colleagues' decision both morally and legally wrong.

"Now three members of this Court have ruled that even though it is a fact that Don Blankenship illegally took over $60 million dollars from Hugh Caperton -- he can get away with it scot-free. Talk about crime in the suites!" he wrote.

In the dissent, he mentioned his quarrel with Blankenship.

"It has been amusing for me to see Mr. Blankenship trying with all his might to create the circumstances where I would be forced to step aside and let him have in toto the kind of Court he wants," Starcher wrote.

"For example, he has said he will be 'targeting' me in the next election if I run. Fortunately, the public can see through this kind of transparent foolishness, just as a West Virginia jury saw through his lies in court."

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