Starcher slapped down

By The West Virginia Record | Jan 11, 2008

It's rare when a state Supreme Court Justice upbraids another state Supreme Court Justice publicly, straight from the bench.

It's even rarer when someone serving in such a trusted position of prestige richly deserves it.

And Justice Larry Starcher did.

Fellow Justice Brent Benjamin was justified in calling out Starcher's latest fit of printed rage as unbecoming. From a member of the court, in defense of our judiciary, it was about time.

"Judges who use their opinions simply as sensationalistic bombast by which to convey partisan agendas or who pander to emotion rather than legal reason do a disservice to the rule of law and to the institution they serve," Benjamin wrote in a Dec. 20 opinion.

He was commenting on Starcher's rhetoric in a dissent from a month earlier -- an opinion known around The West Virginia Record's
offices as the "horse puckey tantrum."

It came after a majority of the court voted to overturn a $60 million Boone County jury verdict against Starcher's arch-nemesis, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Starcher, who once called Blankenship "stupid" and "a clown," was not pleased.

"Now three members of this Court have ruled that even though it is a fact that Don Blankenship illegally took over $60 million dollars ... he can get away with it scot-free. Talk about crime in the suites!" Starcher wrote. "Horse puckey!"

The exclamation points are a telltale sign. Starcher's argument was chock full of name-calling, but devoid of a legal basis, which is the intended purpose of a dissent.

We searched the web, but couldn't find another instance of an elected official using the term "horse puckey" in a public statement, much less in an opinion of a sitting judge or justice of the highest court in West Virginia or any other state.

Then again, there isn't another member of the judicial branch quite like Larry Starcher, set to retire from the court after wrapping his 12-year term this year.

Benjamin and Starcher sit on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But our criticism isn't a political one. Democrat and Republican judges at times respectfully disagree on interpretation of the law. That's what they're supposed to do. They are not supposed to use their privileged position as a platform for ad hominem attacks.

Thankfully, West Virginia's Starcher nightmare is almost over. The 2008 elections presents a new opportunity for voters to get the court right. Let's learn from past mistakes and elect a candidate who wants to judge, not vilify.

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