By STEVE COHEN
CHARLESTON -- Out of reverence for the Constitutional separation of powers doctrine seldom does a federal court stand in the way of a ruling from a state bench.
But, ah, West Virginia has bucked the trend this fall with a finding by U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. that the feds may have to pull the reins on a justice who sits on the Mountain State's highest tribunal.
Judge Copenhaver found that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher may have indeed displayed "strong personal bias" with public pronouncements that a party to case pending before him was "stupid" and "a clown."
Starcher could have recused himself and spared West Virginia the embarrassment of a rebuke from the federal courts and yet another blow to the reputation of our court system. But no.
Copenhaver is protecting one's 14th Amendment right to due process, believing that Starcher has potentially deprived a citizen their right to an impartial hearing. Starcher's characterization of someone over whom he was to pass judgment should have disqualified him from the case.
Starcher's continuing displays of pool hall decorum have earned him the nickname "Loose Lips Larry." He declared that a fellow justice was so much as bought and paid for. From the bench he referred to a former magistrate as a "bitch." The state's morning daily reported that he cursed the chair of the House Judiciary for inaction on a bill to raise Starcher's pay. He was admonished by the very court on which he now serves for soliciting a campaign endorsement -- a violation of the guidelines for judicial behavior. As a Monongalia County circuit judge, he was reprimanded for coaching the prosecution on how to manage their case.
Most recently Starcher, showed his talent for prejudicial harassment by referencing the nationality of a lawyer presenting a case before him, calling her courtroom presence "window dressing" and labeling her as an "argument prop."
Starcher's blatant display of bias drew a motion he recuse himself from the case. Here again Starcher's prejudice bars the courtroom door to an individual's right to a fair trial.
This latest raising of eyebrows by the federal judiciary over Starcher's actions affirms his disrespect for the court. He has turned it into a profane and biased mockery of justice. He should resign. He should be sanctioned by the State Bar. Judge Copenhaver may be holding Starcher to a standard worthy of a respected court system.
Unfortunately for West Virginia, it is a standard too high for Larry Starcher. And it is not Larry Starcher's laughable courtroom reputation that hurts the most -– it is his undermining of the sanctity, fairness and public respect of our court system.
Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.