CHARLESTON – To Colgan Air, state Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher keeps getting more insulting with each passing day.
The airline company again is attempting to have Starcher disqualified from its appeal of a decision that held the company liable for harassment and discrimination over the firing of a Pakistani and Muslim employee. Starcher thinks Colgan only hired Shareeza Altaf as co-counsel because she is Pakistani.
After an initial motion to disqualify, Starcher responded. That response, Colgan says, contained some “startling” statements. The company filed a second motion to disqualify Friday based on Starcher’s response.
“He makes several comments disparaging Counsel for Colgan Air generally and Ms. Altaf in particular,” the motion says. “Justice Starcher refers to Ms. Altaf, a member of the Virginia Bar, as an ‘argument prop’ and ‘window dressing.’
“In addition, Justice Starcher claims that it was inappropriate for Ms. Altaf to even be present at oral argument at counsel table because she was nothing more than a ‘prop on display.’”
Rao Zahid Khan, a Pakistani pilot fired by Colgan in 2001 after he failed a proficiency test, had successfully filed an wrongful termination suit against the company.
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.
“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 dismiss.
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.
“Quite frankly, it was a ‘brusque’ response to Mr. Dombroff’s somewhat strident finger-pointing during presentation to the Court.
“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 denied an interview request after his response, saying he had nothing to add that wasn’t already in the letter.
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.
Again, the company is arguing that even the presence of impropriety is grounds enough to disqualify Starcher from the case.
“Justice Starcher’s letter demonstrates extreme bias, and the type of invidious discrimination that has no place in society, let alone before the bar of the West Virginia Supreme Court,” the motion says.
“It is a personal insult to Ms. Altaf and appears to be based on the premise that a lawyer, who happens to be a Pakistani woman, could not possibly be sitting at counsel table before this Court based on her hard work, competence and diligence in representing her client at prior stages of the litigation.”
Colgan says Starcher’s letter removes all doubt of the existence of impropriety in the matter and “reveals a deep bias that calls the integrity of the entire proceeding into question.”
“Failure to take appropriate action risks seriously undermining public confidence in the Court,” the motion says.
Colgan isn’t the only business taking exception to Starcher’s propensity for making controversial statements. Massey Energy wants Starcher, whose term expires next year, removed from all its cases because of a handful of comments he has made about Massey CEO Don Blankenship.
Starcher says Blankenship bought Justice Brent Benjamin’s spot on the court with several million dollars in advertising because he did not want Warren McGraw re-elected.
Even before that election, Starcher, according to a report in the State Journal, 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.” Massey’s complaint also states that Starcher singled it out in that criticism.