Justice Thomas McHugh examines a file recently in the state Supreme Court offices. McHugh has filled in for ailing Justice Joseph Albright this fall. (Photo by Chris Dickerson)
CHARLESTON –- Thomas McHugh found the chairs for justices on the state Supreme Court just as comfortable as they were more than 10 years ago.
McHugh has spent the fall on the bench, sitting in for ailing Justice Joseph Albright. Chief Justice Spike Maynard asked McHugh to fill in when Albright notified the court in September that he wouldn't be able to take part in the fall term.
"Chief Justice Maynard called me," McHugh, 72, recalled in a recent interview. "I thought about it briefly before I said I would do it. My instinct and logic said to do it because I have a great respect for the Court. After 10 years, it's nice that people still think of you as a judge.
"It is an honor to be able to do this, and I appreciate the opportunity very much."
McHugh, who already had 25 years on the bench behind him, said the transition back into the role was an easy one.
"Fortunately, I already knew a lot of people here," he said. "I knew one of Justice Albright's law clerks. He was one of my clerks when I was first here. I knew Pam (McCracken, Albright's secretary). I served with several of the other Justices.
"I know the system. I had been here. I know what goes into opinion writing for this Court.
"And besides, behind any good judge are good law clerks."
Since his retirement from the Supreme Court at the end of 1997, McHugh had been doing mediation at the Charleston firm of Allen, Guthrie and McHugh with a son, one of his four children.
For now, he is the only former Justice in the state who is a senior status judge. That will change when outgoing Justices Maynard and Larry Starcher join him.
McHugh said he has enjoyed his brief return to the Supreme Court.
"It's been great," he said. "It's been a pleasure working with these other justices.
"I see the Justices in a different light than what people read about in the newspaper. I knew the people very well, and I have a great respect for each of them. A court has to have a moral high ground."
He stressed his respect for the court.
"People come and go, but the court is always going to be here," McHugh said. "Most look upon their time here and think, 'What did I add to the court and to the body of law in West Virginia?' You have to be careful how you write your opinions as to not lose the respect of the public.
"But, I see cases now that are citing opinions I wrote when I was first here. That's always a good feeling to know what you did stands up over time."
The other Justices have a respect for McHugh.
"It's always a pleasure to work with Justice McHugh," said Justice Robin Jean Davis. "He's a great legal scholar and a gentleman in every respect."
Davis, in fact, helped publish a book a few years ago of some of McHugh's opinions from his first stint on the Court.
"When I first came on the bench in 1996, I probably spent more time in his office than mine," Davis said. "He was teaching me because there is a huge learning curve when you come on the bench. I'm thankful for his patience and his guidance. He was instrumental in steering me in the right direction and showing me how a justice should work, behave and think."
Davis said McHugh is settled and grounded.
"Some of our procedures have changed, but it took him no time to pick up on those," she said. "He's not missed a beat."
She also praised his personality.
"He's got a great sense of humor," she said. "He's not afraid to, when we're in a heated legal debate, crack a joke and get everybody away from the intensity moment," she said.
The other Justices also have praised McHugh.
"Tom McHugh is a gracious and kind individual," Justice Brent Benjamin said. "He didn't hesitate when the Court needed him to come back, and I think that says something about his character.
"He's a fine individual, and I have enjoyed working with him."
McHugh was elected to the Supreme Court in 1980 and was re-elected to a second 12-year term in 1992. He served as Chief Justice in 1984, 1998, 1992, 1995 and 1996. He retired on Dec. 31, 1997.
McHugh was born in Charleston in 1936 and is a graduate of West Virginia University and the West Virginia University College of Law. In law school, he was a member of the Order of Coif, a legal honorary, and was associate editor of the West Virginia Law Review. He then served as law clerk to West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Harlan Calhoun from 1966-1968. He was elected judge in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County 1974, re-elected in 1976, and served as chief circuit judge from 1974 to 1980.
Albright still is recovering from an esophagectomy in July. The plan is for him to return to the bench when the spring term begins in January.
"We are planning on Justice Albright returning Jan. 1," McHugh said. "He gets all of the opinions and reads them. I talk to him at least once a week. And we discuss the opinions. He's home and in rehab.
"My objective is that when he returns, there is no work waiting for him. He doesn't have to worry about that."
McHugh called the last few months both challenging and rewarding.
"It's been nice to be able to have at least a say in the work product of the Court," he said. "I don't know what I will be doing next month. I'm just taking it day by day right now."