CHARLESTON – The Judicial Investigation Commission has issued a public admonishment for Judge Eric H. O’Briant, saying he “should know better” for allowing a paralegal to handle cases in magistrate court without a license.
The amended publish admonishment was issued on July 5.
The JIC wrote that O’Briant improperly and unnecessarily usurped the power of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia by authorizing an unlicensed individual to practice law in the Magistrate Court of Logan County in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
O’Briant has been a judge in Logan County since 1987.
Joshua T. Thompson graduated from the University of Connecticut in May 2016 and, is not licensed to practice law in any state or federal courts in the United States. Thompson has continuously worked as a paralegal at Wolfe, White & Associates since August or September 2016, according to the admonishment.
Thompson spent three months appearing in Logan Magistrate Court representing defendants in criminal cases while an attorney was present for the majority of the proceedings. However, on two occasions, Thompson appeared by himself and represented individuals in plea hearings. Thompson inappropriately signed pleadings as an attorney.
On April 21, an ethics complaint was filed against O’Briant. In his response, he stated that he had advised Steven Wolfe that if his firm wanted Thompson to appear on behalf of a court appointed lawyer in cases in magistrate court, that they would have to obtain permission from the Supreme Court.
O’Briant wrote that he had believed that Thompson had obtained permission from the Supreme Court when he signed off on an order giving Thompson permission to “appear and advocate for clients of Wolfe, White and Associates before the Magistrate of Logan County.”
The JIC voted 7 to 0 and determined that probable cause existed in the instant complaint and that O’Briant had violated five separate rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
The JIC further determined that formal discipline was not appropriate under the circumstances, but that the charges were serious enough to warrant a public admonishment.
“Respondent is a respected judge with 30 years of experience on the bench and he should know better than to take such an order at face value,” the public admonishment stated.
O’Briant has 14 days from the date the public admonishment order was issued to decide whether to contest it.