\CHARLESTON - After nine years, it's hard for attorney Mike Carey to pinpoint just how many hours he's spent defending three Republican groups against a libel lawsuit brought on by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlotte Pritt.

One thing he's sure of, though, is how it feels to finally come out victorious.

"I feel good," Carey said Tuesday, a day after the two groups he represented were found not guilty in a Fayetteville courtroom, having been accused of running false advertisements during the 1996 election. "We were confident all along in our position and believe the jury's verdict confirms we were correct."

Pritt, who became the first female to win a major party nomination gubernatorial bid in West Virginia, charged the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee and the West Virginia State Victory Committee in 1997 with costing her a shot at the governorship because of their negative, false advertising.

Ironically, it was a case originally filed in Fayette County Circuit Court by Pritt's lawyers because they said the backlog of cases in Kanawha Circuit Court was too long. They said they hoped to have a trial within two years of the suit's filing.

It took nearly a decade for the matter to be resolved, with a jury in Fayetteville finally putting a stop to it, and Carey struggled to find an estimate on the amount of time he spent on the case.

"Hundreds and hundreds of hours," Carey said. "Probably thousands."

Carey noted that his clients did not believe a settlement to ever be a possibility. They vehemently believed that proving their ads weren't untrue would be accomplished with the citing of Pritt's voting record.

Carey had to defend several ads, one that claimed Pritt, a former school-teacher, voted to teach first-graders about condoms.

But he was able to adequately prove, based on voting records, that the ads weren't a reach.

"I think the key point was clearly a line-by-line comparison of Ms. Pritt's voting record and the ads themselves," Carey said. "That's what we focused on from the very beginning, and we knew a clear reading of the statute would confirm our position."

It took nine years for that clear reading, though, as the lawsuit traveled from court to court, beginning in Fayette Circuit Court before going to federal court, the state Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, back to the state Supreme Court and back to Fayette Circuit.

The original Fayette judge, Charles Vickers, had retired by the time the case made it back to his court, and Judge Paul Blake ultimately presided over the trial.

"It's a case that went up and down through the ranks," Carey said. "One thing that made this case different is that it did involve first amendment rights. Courts, up the ladder and down, closely look at any challenge to the first amendment. It's not unusual for a case like this to have a lengthy procedural history."

And for that history to end in a victory is something that Carey can enjoy.

"(Losing) certainly would've been difficult," he said, "but when you make the decision, as my clients did, to fight this case from the beginning, you always have to accept that as a possibility."

He also accepts the possibility that Pritt's camp, led by attorney Hugh Roberts, could continue with the case in another venue, though he doesn't want to speculate on whether they will or not.

If they do, Carey, now 51, would rather it doesn't take another nine years to work itself out, though.

"I don't think I'll be retired by then," he said, "but you never know."

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