Justices expand on SSAC ruling

McHugh

Webster

CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals says "there was no basis for the trial court's involvement" in the case of four South Charleston High School football players who were suspended following an on-the-field brawl last fall. The state Supreme Court decided in December that Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster overstepped her authority when she tossed out the players' suspensions. The Court said Webster "exceeded (her) authority in issuing the preliminary injunction" that allowed the four players to play in the Nov. 26 Class AAA semifinal game against Brooke after they had been ejected in the final seconds of the Black Eagles' quarterfinal victory over Hurricane. The West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission had appealed Webster's Nov. 30 ruling, filing its appeal with the state Supreme Court. The state's high court, which handed down its ruling Dec. 7, filed its full opinion Thursday. Justice Thomas McHugh, who authored the Court's 25-page opinion, said the lower court "overlooked significant language" in the decisions it cited. "A careful reading," he wrote, "reveals that the authority of a court to inject itself into an SSAC matter arises when that body exceeds its legitimate rule-making authority. "Nothing in the jurisprudence of this Court supports the trial court's foundational premise that courts are permitted to second guess the manner in which the SSAC applies its rules." Not only is the trial court's conclusion not supported by the rules, but the Court said it "reflects a failure to fully consider and appreciate the events that had just transpired on the field." The WVSSAC, the Court said, acted within its authority in suspending the players. More importantly, the Court said, the trial court had no basis for injecting itself into the matter. "In the interest of avoiding prospective instances of improper judicial review of matters expressly reserved to the SSAC, we hold that decisions properly within the purview of the legislative grant of authority to the WVSSAC under West Virginia Code § 18-2-25, such as the application of WVSSAC Rules and the review of calls or rulings made by game officials, are not subject to judicial review," the Court wrote. By "superimposing" its judgment on how the WVSSAC applied its own rules with regard to handling ejections and suspensions, the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction, the Court said. "Simply put, the trial court lacked any authority to engage in a review of the SSAC's decision to suspend the respondent players pursuant to its properly promulgated rules," it concluded. The South Charleston players -- Tyler Harris, Pierra Henry, Emerson Gagnon and Trevond Reese -- were suspended on Nov. 22 for one game by the WVSSAC for their involvement in the fight at the end of the Nov. 19 game against Hurricane at Laidley Field. On Nov. 23, Webster granted a temporary restraining order to allow the athletes to play in the semifinal game against Brooke, claiming the players "presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that they will suffer immediate and irreparable harm" if they had to wait for a hearing before they could play, according to Webster's order. Webster said there was not enough time to schedule a hearing for the players and the WVSSAC to present their sides of the story because of the Thanksgiving holiday. South Charleston went on to win the Nov. 27 semifinal game 29-28 and advance to the championship game in Wheeling. However, shortly after the Supreme Court's ruling, the WVSSAC said South Charleston would not play in the Class AAA title game. Martinsburg and Brooke, instead, played for the championship.

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