Chief Justice Brent Benjamin
The John Marshall Fife and Drum Corps from Marshall University performed at the start of the ceremony opening the January 2009 term of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Jan. 13. (Photo by Michael Switzer, courtesy of the state Supreme Court)
The new state Supreme Court, from left, includes Justice Margaret Workman, Justice Robin Jean Davis, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, Justice Thomas McHugh and Justice Menis Ketchum. McHugh is sitting temporarily for ailing Justice Joseph Albright.
CHARLESTON – Brent Benjamin, on his first day as Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, presided over a new kind of ceremony that promised a new kind of Court.
For the opening of the current term on Jan. 13, he even brought a band.
The John Marshall Fife and Drum Corps from Marshall University performed to begin the ceremony. No one in the room could remember hearing live music there.
Benjamin then read memorials for 28 West Virginia attorneys who died last year. He turned the memorials into a half hour history lesson full of heroes and humor.
Benjamin's event managed to break tradition while honoring the past.
Although the green uniforms of the fife and drum corps dazzled against a backdrop of black robes, the name of the group sent Benjamin back 200 years.
He called John Marshall "the father of American jurisprudence."
He introduced newly elected Justice Menis Ketchum, identifying him as a graduate of Ohio University in Athens. Benjamin said Warren Miller was the only other Justice who graduated there.
"He was a really smart guy," said Ketchum.
"He was a Republican," Benjamin, also a Republican, countered.
"He was a misled really smart guy," said Ketchum, a Democrat.
Benjamin introduced newly re-elected Justice Margaret Workman and noted that along with Justice Robin Davis, the Court had two women who had twice been elected statewide.
After he read memorials for lawyers, he invited guests to deliver memorials for five judges who died last year.
Former House Speaker Robert Kiss remembered Judge Robert Ashworth. Senior status Justice Thomas McHugh remembered Justice Thomas Miller. Circuit Judge L.D. Egnor remembered Judge Dan Robinson. Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes remembered Judge Vance Sencindiver. Circuit Judge Drew Crislip remembered Judge Robert Staker.
Benjamin wrapped up the event by promising "lots of initiatives" in 2009.
He said the Court would appoint a commission on his Access to Justice program.
"We don't have meaningful access to justice for a lot of people," he said. "Those of low and moderate incomes don't always have access to civil justice."
He said attorney Nathan Bowles stated, "No one is above the law and no one should be below the law."
"It will be a long process and we will take baby steps," Benjamin said, adding that he hoped to expand drug courts that help people turn around their lives.
He also said the Court will continue making progress on electronic filing.
He said the Court would continue working with legislators to create business courts for speedier handling of commercial disputes.
"It's going to be a wonderful year," Benjamin said after the ceremony. "We have two new justices. We're headed in a new direction."
As for the ceremonial opening, Benjamin said he hopes future chief justices make the event an annual occurrence.
"It was especially touching when the widow of one of those we honored told me after the ceremony how appreciative she was of what we had done," he said. "It was most touching, and that shows me that we need to do this.
"It was our way to show our appreciation for what her husband -- and all of the others we honored -- did. But for me, she gave this entire event a personal face to remember with this personal memorial.
"The people we lost, those we honored, did so many things for the legal profession and for the state."
As Benjamin's year begins, seldom has a greater opportunity presented itself for change.
Justices Spike Maynard and Larry Starcher have departed at the end of 12-year terms, making room for Ketchum and Workman.
Voters didn't re-elect Maynard, and Starcher didn't seek re-election.
Even before they left, Justice Joseph Albright left his job temporarily due to illness.
McHugh, a former Justice, has substituted for Albright since September.