CHARLESTON – When it came time for Gov. Joe Manchin to appoint someone to the state Supreme Court, he said he never thought the mission would be so easy.
On Wednesday, Manchin tapped Thomas McHugh to serve following the March death of Justice Joseph Albright.
McHugh had been sitting by designation as Senior Status Justice on the Supreme Court since September when then-Chief Justice Spike Maynard appointed him to serve during Albright's battle with esophageal cancer. Current Chief Justice Brent Benjamin reappointed McHugh in January. And upon Albright's death last month, Benjamin appointed him to serve until Manchin named a replacement.
At Wednesday's press conference, Manchin admitted he deviated from his established system for filling judicial vacancies because McHugh is a man of "the highest caliber."
"This is the first time I have bypassed the process," Manchin said. "Due to the overwhelming support of Justice McHugh, it would have been unfair for other potential candidates to go through the process for which someone else had clear consensus and qualifications for the role.
"Justice McHugh put the word 'service' back in public service."
While thanking those who expressed interest in the position for their willingness to serve, Manchin said he was honest with them all, telling them that his first choice was McHugh if he could persuade him to accept the job.
"As most of you know, Justice McHugh was first elected to the state's highest court in 1980, and he won a second term in 1992," Manchin said. "He was unopposed in both the '92 primary and general elections. That speaks volumes about the character of Justice McHugh. He is fair, straightforward and demonstrates great leadership ability.
"The work of the Supreme Court is never done, and ours is the busiest state Supreme Court in the land. I knew in making this selection we needed a justice tireless in his work, who wouldn't miss a beat, but would hit the ground running.
"There are so many qualified people who showed interest in the job, and I thank them for that. But I have never had a total consensus on a decision in my life as I did with this one."
Others also were quick to heap praise upon McHugh.
* Chief Justice Brent Benjamin praised both McHugh and Manchin.
"We appreciate the promptness of Governor Manchin's appointment of Acting Justice McHugh to the position in which he has been so ably serving the people," Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said. "This appointment helps underscore the stability and predictability of our Supreme Court.
"On a personal note, I am delighted to be able to continue working with my friend, Tom McHugh."
* Justice Robin Jean Davis authored "A Tribute to Thomas E. McHugh: An Encyclopedia of Legal Principles from Opinions Written by Justice McHugh" for the West Virginia Law Review a few years ago.
"I had the privilege of working with Justice McHugh for over a year when I was first on the bench," Davis said. "He became a true friend and a painstaking mentor. So much of the success I've enjoyed as a Justice I owe to Tom McHugh.
"I am personally delighted that he has accepted the Governor's appointment. It is a fine day for West Virginia's judicial system and, indeed, for all of our citizens."
* Justice Margaret Workman also previously served on the bench with McHugh.
"I am so pleased that the Governor has appointed Justice McHugh," she said. "He brings institutional knowledge and a balanced outlook to all the issues, as well as immense integrity, compassion for people, and a strong work ethic.
"His presence has helped the Court's recent transitions go smoothly and his work continues to strengthen the Court."
* Justice Menis Ketchum called the move "a great appointment."
"He brings a calming influence, great work ethic and legal ability to our Supreme Court," he said.
* Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is "pleased to both welcome and congratulate Justice McHugh."
"I've had many calls and comments in support of the appointment," he said. "He's a fair and balanced person."
* Allan N. Karlin, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice (formerly West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association), said "it is the absolute best appointment" that Manchin could've made."
"We all are looking forward to Justice McHugh continuing the fine work he's always done," Karlin said.
* State Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also called it "an excellent appointment."
"He's qualified, he's balanced, he's fair," Kessler said. "You could take his picture and put it in the dictionary under 'judge.'"
* Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, noted McHugh's honorable record.
"Justice McHugh has long been respected for his service on the court," he said. "He is highly regarded for the integrity he brings to the bench."