CHARLESTON – The former state Supreme Court administrator says his firing last week was political, but he also says he wasn’t surprised.
The state Supreme Court voted to dismiss Steve Canterbury on Jan. 4 on a 3-2 vote. Because he was a “will and pleasure” employee, the Justices didn’t have to give a reason for his termination. Former Nicholas County Circuit Judge Gary Johnson, who lost his re-election bid last year, was chosen by the Justices to serve as interim director.
“It wasn't a surprise,” Canterbury said. “And it was political, pure and simple. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Chief Justice Allen Loughry has been unfriendly toward me for a few years now. Frankly, he had not spoken to me in a few years except when he had to.”
Canterbury held the job for more than 11 years. Before that, he ran the state Regional Jail Authority for eight years.
“I honestly believed that Justice (Beth) Walker would give me a fair trial, if nothing else, for a few months,” Canterbury said. “But, I was dead wrong. Four days. We had a number of in-depth conversations about how the administration works. She wrote me a lovely thank you card, and it implies that we would be working together. All she could know to base her decision on was hearsay.
“And Justice (Margaret) Workman … well, Chief Justice Loughry was her law clerk, so she’s had a long relationship with him. But I have climbed many a mountain for Justice Workman, so that was disappointing.
“I guess the biggest surprise was that it happened when it happened.”
Still, Canterbury said he is happy with the work he did as court administrator.
“It’s been pretty remarkable what we’ve been able to do in 11 ½ years,” he said. “I say we genuinely. It takes a leader to get things going, and it takes a leader to know when they back off and let others go forward and reach the goals.
“Take the Domestic Violence Registry, for example. That has saved lives – officers’ lives and victims’ lives. It is regarded as one of the best in the nation.
“Also, we were not compliant with the Brady Law. Now, we the Mental Hygiene Register. The FBI depends on those. They audit you every year. We’ve always had A+ audits. Great people did it, but it was my idea to get it started and established.”
He also noted improvements to the Family Court system, including the addition of judges to reduce backlogs.
“We had people waiting two years for a divorce when I arrived,” Canterbury said. “I pledged to fix that. Now, we have an 85 percent compliance record. The average is 65 percent.”
And, he said there are things he led that aren’t as noticeable, such as modernizing the Justices’ conference room and centralizing court employees from seven different locations across Charleston into one building.
“And lots of counties wanted to improve the court venues, make facilities better,” Canterbury said. “I went and gave remarkable time and effort to make sure they were fully advised, that they understood the costs and benefits.
“As a result, there were a record number of annexes built during my time. There are specifics things I did, nationally, too, such as several justice reinvestment projects.
Of course, I had assistance from the chief justices – (Menis) Ketchum, (Brent) Benjamin and (Robin Jean) Davis. I just don’t bother to scream for attention. I just thought I was doing a good job.”
Canterbury said he thinks he still can help the state with his service.
I have produced in this state,” he said. “I’ve taken on thankless jobs. I’ve done it without a single dime being questioned for the last 19 years or so. I started to go through the memory banks. I don’t think anyone in the state of West Virginia could’ve done this job any better. That might be egotistical, but I don’t know who could’ve worked any harder and met so many expectations.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years doing my best in government to help make West Virginians have a better quality of life. As I said earlier, I’ve taken on some pretty tough, thankless jobs. I’ve done them with incredible skill and ability.
“We all make our mistakes, but I think I’ve done pretty well. I’d like to be able to continue in some fashion to contribute. It’s not a very lofty goal -- just to be able to contribute. If not through government work, I’ll try to find some other way. The whole world is an open set of possibilities.”
Canterbury said he spent the first few days after his firing decompressing and unpacking boxes he took from his office.
“And I had to get a new cell phone,” he said. “That’s the number I had had since 1999 or 2000.”
Another change resulting from Canterbury’s firing is that he won’t take office as the president of the Conference of State Court Administrators. His term, the first for a West Virginian, was to begin in August.
“There is a great importance and prestige of being president of COSCA,” Canterbury said. “I thought that would have some meaning. I was the first, and maybe last, West Virginian on the (National Center for State Courts) board. I was able to bring the rural America, with West Virginia as an example, to make sure it wasn’t forgotten."