CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has decided a Kanawha County judge overstepped her authority when she tossed out the suspensions of four South Charleston High School football players.
In a ruling issued Tuesday afternoon, the Court said Judge Carrie Webster "exceeded (her) authority in issuing the preliminary injunction" that allowed the four players to play in the Nov. 26 Class AAA semifinal game against Brooke after they had been ejected in the final seconds of the Black Eagles' quarterfinal victory over Hurricane.
Shortly after that ruling, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission said South Charleston will not play in the Class AAA title game. Martinsburg and Brooke will face off at 7 p.m. Saturday for the championship.
"We are pleased with the expedient decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals allowing us to proceed with the Class AAA Football Championship Game," WVSSAC Executive Director Gary Ray said. "It is our hope that this will bring closure to this issue."
If the Supreme Court had ruled the other way, Webster's injunction allowed the four players to play in the postponed Class AAA championship game against Martinsburg. Ohio Circuit Judge Arthur Recht had issued a temporary restraining order delaying the title game.
In its Tuesday ruling, the Supreme Court said no court has jurisdiction in the case, and that the matter rests completely with the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission.
The WVSSAC had appealed Webster's Nov. 30 ruling that dismissed the suspensions of four South Charleston High football players involved in an end-of-game brawl in the Black Eagles' Nov. 19 Class AAA quarterfinal against Hurricane.
Last Thursday, the WVSSAC filed its appeal with the state Supreme Court.
The WVSSAC on Wednesday also said it has delayed that game – scheduled for this past Saturday – per an order by Ohio Circuit Judge Arthur Recht. The WVSSAC made the decision to delay the title game "pending resolution of litigation" in Kanawha County.
"This is a very unfortunate and unique situation," SSAC Executive Director Gary Ray said in a statement Wednesday. "Our hope is to settle the Class AAA football championship on the field of competition. We have directed our attorney to do all that he can to expedite a fair and final resolution of this matter."
In Thursday's court filing, the WVSSAC asked for an expedited ruling.
"The delay of the game poses problems for high school sports," the petition states. "A significant number of high school football players are also members of high school basketball teams. High school boys basketball practice began on Nov. 15, 2010, and the first boys' basketball game can be played on Dec. 14, 2010.
"The likelihood of inclement weather affecting the game increases the later the game is scheduled."
The South Charleston players -- Tyler Harris, Pierra Henry, Emerson Gagnon and Trevond Reese -– were suspended on Nov. 22 for one game by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission for their involvement in a fight at the end of the Black Eagles' Class AAA quarterfinal game Nov. 19 against Hurricane at Laidley Field.
On Nov. 23, Webster granted a temporary restraining order to allow the athletes to play in the semifinal game against Brooke, claiming the players "presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that they will suffer immediate and irreparable harm" if they had to wait for a hearing before they could play, according to Webster's order.
Webster said there was not enough time to schedule a hearing for the players and the WVSSAC to present their sides of the story because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
South Charleston went on to win the Nov. 27 semifinal game 29-28 and advance to the Saturday's championship game in Wheeling.
Tuesday's hearing in front of Webster included the WVSSAC, the players and attorneys for both sides. The attorneys argued whether the players were properly ejected following the midfield brawl in the final seconds of the game.
The WVSSAC claims the four players should be suspended for one game, which would prohibit them from the title contest against Martinsburg.
The player's attorney, Ben Salango, was trying to block the suspensions pending later court action. Salango said high school football rules disallow officiating crews from ejecting a player after the end of a game.
Salango said the call has to be made on the field before the end of the game, which he said was not the case. He argued that the referees had ended the game with 14 seconds left on the clock before any players were ejected.
The WVSSAC's motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order was denied, according to Webster's order.
"The Court ... does not find persuasive WVSSAC's argument that the officials' jurisdiction extends beyond the game until the officials' submit the Special Reports to the WVSSAC and the offending schools' principals," the order states.
The WVSSAC was represented by Beckley attorney Bill Wooton.
Also Tuesday, the Brooke County Board of Education filed its lawsuit against the WVSSAC requesting a temporary restraining order to postpone Saturday's Class AAA championship game between South Charleston and Martinsburg. The board also requested the court prohibit the WVSSAC from canceling the championship game altogether. Recht granted a 10-day delay on the championship game.
On Friday, Salango filed his response, addressing some issues that had been brought up in Brooke County's petition. And Monday, a longtime Kanawha Valley football official endered an amicus curiae brief.
Salango was a member of finance committee to elect Webster as a judge. After being appointed to that seat by former Gov. Joe Manchin, Webster won the right to finish out the term on the bench in early November by defeating Charleston attorney Dan Greear.
But neither Wooton, who is the WVSSAC's attorney, nor Salango said his role in Webster's election campaign had any bearing on the ruling. The case was randomly assigned to Webster by the court's computer docketing system.
"In West Virginia, candidates for judge have to campaign and raise money, and, frankly, the public at large doesn't care about judges so they can't raise money from very many other people than lawyers," Wooton told the Charleston Daily Mail.
Wooton actually served with Webster in the House of Delegates. Wooton still is a Delegate.
"I certainly do not have a problem with her prior professional relationship with Mr. Wooton," Salango told the Daily Mail. "He's known Judge Webster probably a lot longer than I have. And I have no doubt that my contributions or his involvement in the Legislature will not affect the outcome of the case."