PRINCETON - In a way, Mary Ellen Griffith has been equipping herself for this all her life -- even though preparing for her new job isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world.
When Griffith dons a judge's robe and takes to the bench in West Virginia's 12th Family Circuit Court, serving Mercer and McDowell County, she'll be making the career transition from private attorney to publicly visible judge.
First thing's first, though. She needs fitted for her inaugural robe.
When and where that will happen, she isn't entirely sure.
"I don't know," she said, laughing. "I've never been a judge before."
Locating her judicial garment is low on the list of new duties for Griffith. She is taking over a spot previously held by Kimber McMillion, who resigned in early April after being suspended without pay over allegations of an unspecified violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Griffith was appointed Monday by Gov. Joe Manchin.
Manchin was impressed with Griffith's experience with family court matters. Judicial experience is another thing.
"There are no judicial classes because it's a unique position," said Steve Canterbury, the Administrative Director of the state's courts system. "We use a term, 'Baby Judge School,' and they learn the basic mechanics of being a judge.
"Many know most of what it entails, because they're lawyers first. But we've gotta teach them the secret handshake and so on."
Griffith admittedly can't waste a lot of time being brought up to speed. The cases have been piling up in the 12th Circuit while a replacement for McMillion was being chosen. Kanawha Family Court Judge Jane Charnock Smallridge and Cabell Family Court Judge Patricia Keller had been pitching in at the 12th Circuit at the risk of falling behind on their own caseloads.
"There's going to be a number of new challenges. Mercer and McDowell have been without a (full-time) judge for four months," Griffith said. "There's already a backlog that had developed prior to the former judge's retirement, and that's only grown the past four months.
"The Supreme Court has worked very hard to have family court judges from other courts help out. We have been so fortunate to have both Judge Keller and Judge Smallridge travel down here to keep it manageable."
An attorney who has been practicing since 1991, Griffith's career highlights include establishing ChildLaw Services. It is the state's only practice designed to exclusively represent children and was started in 2001.
"Mary Ellen Griffith's career has been dedicated to serving children and families," Manchin said in a press release. "She brings a wealth of family law experience to the bench and will be an outstanding addition to the quality pool of jurists we're fortunate to have leading West Virginia's legal system."
At ChildLaw Services, Griffith says she represented children who were abused or neglected, the subject of custody disputes or the victims of a crime. To a lesser extent, she represented children who were in juvenile courts facing their own charges.
She graduated from West Virginia University College of Law in 1988 and since 1992 has served on the state Bar's Commission on Children and the Law, which she currently chairs. She was honored in 2004 with the West Virginia Children's Justice Task Force Extra Mile Award, and in 2005 was given the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner's Award.
Griffith certainly doesn't lack the accomplishments. Now she's turning her attention toward gaining new experience.
"It seems like the right thing for me and the people of southern West Virginia," Griffith said. "I'm fairly knowledgeable in that area of the law, and I think I can be fair and know that I can work efficiently while I hear the cases before me.
"I'm quite sure it will be an exciting and challenging change."