By STEVE COHEN
CHARLESTON -- Just weeks before Christmas, retiring Justice Larry Starcher was made a "Distinguished West Virginian," presumably because, in the words of the award, he has "brought positive attention to our state."
Attention, yes. But positive attention? Not so much.
Days after the gubernatorial presentation, a national study of state legal climates again placed West Virginia's as the worst in the United States. Larry's legacy most certainly contributed to the unflattering designation.
The Starcher brand of judicial activism is directly responsible for employers choosing to send jobs to other states. Case in point: in a Berkeley County lawsuit he dissented, saying the majority was "technically correct," i.e., it followed the law. Courts that create unpredictability in a state's judicial system become a barrier to jobs.
In another recent dissent, Starcher blasted his fellow justices for doing "whatever it takes to protect doctors" from malpractice suits, even though the incidence of these suits has jumped by more than one-third in West Virginia over the past four years.
In a Marshall County case, Starcher dissented on the grounds that a plaintiff should be entitled to pursue a lawsuit even though a remedy was provided through the state's workers' compensation system. The Starcher dissent led West Virginia University economist Russell Sobel to conclude that "such decisions have a negative impact" on creating jobs in West Virginia.
Starcher has distinguished himself alright, though not in the positive sense of the word. He called a Pakistani lawyer arguing a case before him "an argument prop" and "window dressing" for her client. His characterization of an employer with issues pending at the court as "stupid" and "a clown" prompted a federal judge to conclude that Starcher demonstrated intemperate "strong personal bias" with such comments.
Legal documents show that as a candidate for the Supreme Court, Starcher so much as shook down a lawyer with a case before him, telling him he would "remember" who supported his campaign financially and who did not. He was admonished for soliciting a campaign contribution while running for his judicial post.
In another case, Starcher was reprimanded for inappropriately coaching the prosecution from the bench about how to manage the case. In yet another case, Starcher called a former magistrate, from the bench, a "b*tch," as reported by the Charleston Gazette.
The Supreme Court changed significantly in this last election. Speculation is rife a vacancy could present itself leading to an appointment by the Governor. Looking back, Larry Starcher's 12 years on the state's highest tribunal should be a model of what not to emulate in choosing a new justice. West Virginia would do far better by avoiding being "distinguished" in this manner.
Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.