CHARLESTON – "Airball" sang out the state Supreme Court as the Justices reversed a Cabell Circuit Judge for attaching constitutional significance to O. J. Mayo's participation in Huntington High School basketball games.
Judge Dan O'Hanlon held last year that Secondary Schools Activities Commission rules violated due process rights of athletes who sue to block suspensions, as Mayo did.
O'Hanlon had no business addressing a constitutional question that neither Mayo nor the high school raised, according to all five Justices.
"Not only do we find it unwise to proceed down the path suggested by the trial court -– inviting courts to review an official's judgment call in assessing technical fouls –- but the foundational underpinnings upon which the trial court based its ruling on the issue of due process are fatally flawed," Justice Thomas McHugh wrote.
O'Hanlon missed another shot when he identified the SSAC as a state agency, according to the Justices.
He missed yet again when he awarded attorneys fees to Mayo, they ruled.
Mayo, now with the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA, played for Huntington High as a senior two seasons ago.
On Jan. 26, 2007, playing against Capitol High, Mayo drew two technical fouls. That alone required suspension for two games under a rule of the SSAC.
Mayo moved toward referee Mike Lazo, who toppled. Debate persists over whether Mayo floored Lazo or Lazo floored himself, but it meant Mayo faced additional sanction.
Mayo sought an injunction against suspension four days later. O'Hanlon granted it and set a hearing in 10 days.
Huntington High officials decided not to wait for action from the activities commission or the court. The school suspended Mayo for 14 days, scratching him from four games.
The SSAC offered to run its suspension concurrent with the school's suspension.
Mayo rejected the offer and proceeded to a hearing. On a break in the hearing, the school agreed to suspend Mayo for 13 days, scratching him from three games.
Mayo accepted, and the lawyers reported the agreement to O'Hanlon.
O'Hanlon could have closed the case, but one of the SSAC's rules bothered him so much that he couldn't let it go.
The rule provided that a team would forfeit a game if a student competed under a court order that a court subsequently vacated or reversed.
In April 2007, O'Hanlon entered an order that not only ratified the 13-day suspension but also declared the forfeiture rule unconstitutional.
He awarded attorney fees and costs to Mayo.
He followed with another order finding the forfeiture rule unconstitutional because it provided no administrative review following ejection from a contest.
He ordered the SSAC to rewrite its rules.
"The current regulations are repugnant to any notion of due process," he wrote.
He asserted his authority over the commission by defining it as a state agency.
On appeal, the Justices found holes in O'Hanlon's orders.
He overlooked a 1984 decision finding that participation in interscholastic athletics did not rise to the level of a constitutionally protected interest, McHugh wrote.
O'Hanlon quoted state law from 1967 establishing the commission but overlooked a 1987 decision pointing out that the commission has existed since 1916, McHugh wrote.
Legislators do not control the makeup of the SSAC or appropriate funds to it, McHugh wrote, and the SSAC does not deposit receipts into the state treasury.
Finally, McHugh wrote that O'Hanlon "attempted to bootstrap the award of attorney's fees to its finding that SSAC is a state agency."
State law provides for legal fees in proceedings that compel public officials to perform mandatory duties, McHugh wrote, but that doesn't apply in this case.
McHugh has substituted throughout the current Supreme Court term for ailing Justice Joseph Albright.
William Wooton of Beckley represented the activities commission.
Matthew Woelfel and Michael Woelfel of Huntington represented Mayo.
After graduating, Mayo spent a year at the University of Southern California.
This year, in nine games with Memphis, Mayo leads the team with an average of 20.6 points per game. He turned 21 on Nov. 5.