THEIR VIEW: Berger works her way to the top

By The West Virginia Record | Nov 5, 2009

Kercheval

Berger

By HOPPY KERCHEVAL

MORGANTOWN -- Irene Berger likes to crochet in her spare time. It takes hour after hour of pulling loops of yarn through other loops until you finally finish the pattern.

Crocheting requires patience and attention to detail. No short cuts. But do it right and the reward is functional art.

She learned how to crochet from her mother, growing up in McDowell County. Neither her mother nor her father -- a coal miner -- graduated from high school, but they stressed to her the importance of education.

Each of the nine children was expected to graduate from high school. Berger would do that, and more.

Berger, the youngest in the family, began her education in a segregated elementary school. In the fourth grade, she and two friends were the first black students to attend the previously all-white grade school.

She was the first in her family to attend college, the first African American woman to serve as a circuit judge in West Virginia. And last month, the U.S. Senate approved her nomination to become the first African American federal judge in West Virginia.

Ask around judicial circles in West Virginia and you'll get the same reaction. They say Irene Berger is fair, tough, hard-working, timely and deliberate. Several attorneys I talked with described her as "conservative," but Berger doesn't care for the label.

"I don't like the conservative-liberal title," she told me. "I have tried to follow the law."

Berger's biggest controversy came when she gutted state Attorney General Darrell McGraw's lawsuit against the tobacco companies because Gov. Caperton and other state department heads refused to join in the suit.

West Virginia and other states ended up settling with the tobacco companies with West Virginia receiving nearly $2 billion. But the AG's office to this day believes the state lost a significant amount of money because its bargaining power was undermined by Berger's decision.

Berger is a personal favorite of U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller who was personally responsible for the choice.

"Judge Berger is absolutely incredible," Rockefeller said recently. "Her historic confirmation ... makes me so very proud."

Being the "first" of something often comes with a stereotypical template. It is true and worth noting that Berger is the first black federal judge in West Virginia, but to focus on her color is to diminish her accomplishments.

After graduation, Berger worked with the Legal Aid Society. She also spent time in the Kanawha County Prosecutor's office and the U.S. Attorney's Office before being appointed as a circuit judge and then elected and re-elected to the position.

As one friend said, "She's dedicated her life to public service."

The dedication to service has been like her hobby of crocheting; the reward of the end result makes all the work worthwhile.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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