PARKERSBURG - During the final moments of a lengthy hearing Monday, an attorney remarked to Arthur Gustke that the senior status judge is working a murder trial later in the week.
"I hope I'm not," Gustke responded. "I really don't know what my schedule is."
Asked to hear arguments stemming from the class action suit brought against DuPont by Parkersburg-area residents over water that was alleged to be contaminated with the chemical "C8", Gustke, who is helping to fill the role of a full-time judge in Wood Circuit Court while Gov. Joe Manchin picks a successor to the now-retired George Hill, had to immerse himself in the background of the case, though admitted he was a little behind on the facts.
He also made comments that he might not be needed much longer.
"The secretary to this (circuit) has almost a full filing cabinet full of information on this case," he said. "And believe me, there's no way I can go over everything and learn it, and I'm not going to be here that much longer.
"It could be the end of this month, OK? I'm not saying it will be, but it could be the end of this month. So I may not be here to hear any more of this."
The open judgeship has been the subject of great dispute in Wood County, with the county's Republican Executive Committee, Democratic Executive Committee, County Commission, Bar Association and Deputy Sheriff's Association all passing resolutions urging Manchin to act quicker.
Hill officially retired in February, and senior status judges Gustke and James Holliday have been responsible for filling his shoes since. Holliday is now substituting in Putnam Circuit Court, too, while Judge O.C. Spaulding recovers from heart bypass surgery.
Some have argued that the senior status judges can not combined to take on the full workload of a permanent judge, and the county's child abuse and neglect cases have caused delays with other cases.
Wood Circuit Judge Jeffrey Reed sent Manchin a letter in May requesting the vacancy be filled "without unnecessary delay."
Manchin's legal counsel, Carte Goodwin, said three weeks ago that the opening should be filled soon.
"The government takes this appointment very seriously," Goodwin has said. "I wish it was something we could do quicker, but at the end of the day it's better to make the right choice."
Gustke backed off his original timeline a little later on in Monday's hearing, but stated "I fully expect by the first of the year that that's going to be over with. And I think that the Governor will have named someone to permanently replace Judge Hill.
"Now, that's the best I can tell you on that, and it won't be more than the first of the year, I don't believe."
Some individuals who were upset with Manchin's actions, or perceived lack thereof, started the website www.woodcountywaits.com. It contains a timeline following Hill's announcement to present day.
Three other judgeships are also open, in Mercer, Berkeley and Greenbrier counties.
Parkersburg attorney Walt Auvil, whose wife Michelle Rusen was one of the nine applicants, has been one of the most outspoken critics, saying, "The system is crowded to begin with, and to try and cram onto the judges' schedule the burden of the entire workload of child abuse and neglect cases, then stand back and say there's no effect on the system and it's not impeding it is a crock."