Thacker testifies before judiciary committee

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Oct 4, 2011


Charleston attorney Stephanie Thacker speaks with Sen. Jay Rockefeller while in Washington during her hearing Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. (Photo courtesy of Rockefeller's office)

WASHINGTON -- West Virginia attorney Stephanie Thacker touched on her experience as both a prosecutor and private practice attorney while testifying before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Thacker was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit after Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia's senior U.S. senator, recommended her nomination.

If approved, Thacker would replace Judge M. Blane Michael, who died earlier this year. Michael had held the position since 1993.

Thacker, who said she was "truly humbled" to sit before the judiciary committee, answered questions from U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who presided over the hearing, and Michael S. Lee, R-Utah.

Durbin first pointed to Thacker's work with the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in developing the nationwide Innocence Lost initiative to combat child sex trafficking.

"At the time, sex trafficking was an emerging and important issue," Thacker told the panel.

By the time she left the U.S. Department of Justice, the task forces and partnerships created by the program made more than 500 arrests and identified more than 200 child victims.

To date, more than 1,600 children have been rescued and more than 700 sex offenders have been convicted because of the program.

"It really speaks to your role as a prosecutor in helping victims," Durbin told Thacker.

Thacker also was asked about her role as an attorney in a West Virginia medical monitoring class action against DuPont. She represented the company in the case.

DuPont is alleged to have released cadmium, arsenic and lead from one of its smelters into a community just north of Clarksburg.

A judge previously had ruled that the retrial of part of the case was to start in March. Last June, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rejected DuPont's petition for rehearing, which asked the Court to further cut punitive damages.

The Court had shaved a $196 million punitives award by 40 percent, but DuPont sought to increase that figure to 70 percent.

The justices said DuPont entered a special master's recommendation of 70 percent too late. They remanded the case and ordered a new trial to determine if the case was filed in a timely manner.

However, after considering the "substantial amount of risk and expense" of going to trial again, the parties reached a settlement.

As part of the $70 million settlement, $4 million was to be made available only for the medical monitoring sub-class of plaintiffs and the money would be deposited into a Qualified Settlement Fund account created solely for that purpose. Also, DuPont was ordered to pay for the cost of a medical monitoring program on a "pay-as-you-go basis" for a period of 30 years.

Thacker told the panel she currently serves as a claims administrator for the continued medical monitoring.

"I'm glad to be helping the community in moving forward," she said.

Durbin said he found the medical monitoring aspect of the case "interesting."

The panel also questioned Thacker on her role in litigating the first Violence Against Women Act prosecution in the country.

The law was passed in October 1994 and the assault on the victim in the case happened a month later.

"It was definitely daunting for me," she said of the experience. "But I was part of a team."

Both Rockefeller and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin made statements in support of Thacker's nomination before she testified.

Rockefeller called her "one of the finest judicial nominees" he has known.

"For myself, I will tell you that I am impressed by her superior intellect, her passion for the law, her unquestioned integrity and her strong character," he said.

Thacker, he said, would be a "strong voice" on the court -- one who follows the law and defies pigeon-holing -- one who knows how to build consensus, most often with "a quick wit," and "can couple deep legal analysis with an understanding of real-world impact."

More importantly, Rockefeller said, Thacker has never forgotten who she is or where came from "and she calls upon that life experience today."

Manchin said the Hamlin native's "impressive background" and "extensive list of accomplishments" make her an exceptional candidate for the Fourth Circuit.

"I believe her wide-ranging expertise, impressive track record and outstanding academic accomplishments make her a first-rate judge," he told the panel.

"I am proud to call her a fellow West Virginian."

Thacker currently is a partner at the law firm of Guthrie & Thomas in Charleston, where she specializes in complex litigation, environmental and toxic tort litigation, and criminal defense. She also teaches as an adjunct professor at the West Virginia University School of Law.

After graduating law school, Thacker spent two years in the Pittsburgh office of the law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. In 1992, after working briefly in the West Virginia Attorney General's Office, Thacker joined the law firm of King, Betts & Allen, which now is Guthrie & Thomas.

She rejoined the firm in 2006 after having served as a federal prosecutor for 12 years both in the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of West Virginia and in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

So far this year, the Senate has confirmed 42 judicial nominees. The judiciary committee will vote on four more next week, it said Tuesday.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond College of Law who follows federal judicial nominations, said he thought Thacker's hearing went well.

"First, the two senators (Rockefeller and Manchin) expressed enthusiastic support and urged prompt consideration and approval," he said. "Second, the two senators asking questions posed few and only one question that was difficult. Senator Lee's questions about the law review article on religious institutions focused on a controversial, difficult area of the law: how much, if at all, the government and courts can analyze and address allegedly improper behavior by those institutions.

"I thought she handled the question well by trying to explain the context in which she was writing and recognizing and pledging to follow case precedent in that area that limits courts' role. Lee seemed reasonably satisfied by the answers. Senators may ask tough written questions but they lack the ability to follow up that senators have in a hearing.

"I think she is well positioned to receive a positive Senate Judicial Committee vote later this month."

Editor's Note: West Virginia Record Editor Chris Dickerson contributed to this report.

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