CHARLESTON – In 1873, naturalist and preservationist John Muir famously wrote, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
Rusty Webb now feels a similar pull. But he might write, “The Mountain State is calling, and I must go.”
Webb, a Charleston attorney, was one of 17 who applied for the vacancy on the state Supreme Court left by the resignation of convicted former Justice Allen Loughry.
“I wake up every day wondering how I can make this state better,” said Webb, a solo practitioner at the Webb Law Centre. “You can ask my wife if I’m not OCD about this state. I absolutely love it, and I wanted to make it better.”
Webb served in the House of Delegates for eight years from 1996 to 2004. And he briefly served on Charleston’s city council in 2017.
“In 2004 when I left public service, my daughter was 4,” Webb said. “I didn’t want to take a moment away from raising her. Now, she’s a freshman in college.
“I’ve been giving consideration to getting back into public service. This Supreme Court opportunity came up. I could serve the 18 months or so left on the term, maybe longer. And, I could help restore the credibility of a court I’ve practiced before for more than 30 years.”
Webb thinks his background would be an asset on the Supreme Court.
“First, I think the court would benefit from the breadth and depth of my legal experience,” he said. “Fifty-two percent of the court’s cases relate to family law. I’ve been practicing family law for 29 of my 30 years. The other 48 percent is made up of criminal law, litigation, insurance and other types of issues. I’ve practiced in virtually all of those areas.”
Despite having lived in Kanawha County his entire adult life, Webb also says his southern West Virginia roots would bring geographical diversity to the court.
“I grew up in Madison,” he said. “I bring southern West Virginia values to any job I take. (Former) Justice (Robin Jean) Davis also grew up in Boone County. I thought she brought southern West Virginia values to the court, and I think that will be missed.”
Webb also said he has the capability to put himself in the shoes of most attorneys in the state.
“I’m what I like to call a street lawyer,” he said. “I’ve been in the trenches. I’ve been a sole practitioner. That’s what I’m doing now. I’ve worked in a two-person firm. I’ve been a part of a three-person firm. These lawyers make up the bulk of the bar in West Virginia.
“I think the court would benefit from someone who has been in the shoes of the sole practitioners or small firm lawyers where the attorney does the purchasing, public relations, marketing, everything. I’d bring that perspective.”
In addition to Webb, those who applied for Loughry’s former seat are Robert Carlton of Charleston, Gregory Chiartis of Charleston, Bradley Crouser of Charleston, James Douglas of Charleston, Lee Feinberg of Charleston, Robert Frank of Lewisburg, John Hutchison of Beckley, Brendan Long of Scott Depot, Louis Palmer of Charleston, Jim Rowe of Lewisburg, William Schwartz of Charleston, Mark Sorsaia of Hurricane, Joanna Tabit of Charleston, Harry Taylor of Charleston, Joseph Wallace of Elkins and Bill Wooton of Beckley. On Dec. 6, Chiartas withdrew his name from consideration.
Six of those applicants – Carlton, Douglas, Frank, Long, Schwartz and Tabit – were on the ballot last month for two seats on the bench. Tim Armstead and Evan Jenkins, both of whom already had been appointed by Gov. Jm Justice, won those elections.
Hutchison and Tabit currently are circuit judges in Raleigh and Kanawha Counties, respectively. Hutchison is a longtime personal friend of Justice who delivered the oath of office when Justice was inaugurated in 2017. Tabit received the highest number of votes behind Jenkins and Armstead in last month's Supreme Court races.
Douglas is a Kanawha Family Court Judge. Rowe is a former circuit judge in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties. Sorsaia is Putnam County's Prosecuting Attorney. Wooton is a former legislator.
The person picked by Justice will serve until the next judicial election, which is May 2020. The person who wins that race will serve until December 2024, which is when Loughry's term was scheduled to end.
The JVAC will conduct interviews for the vacancy Dec. 11.
Loughry resigned last month after he was found guilty on 11 federal felony counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, witness tampering and lying to federal agents. He faced impeachment before his resignation, and he still must go before the state Judicial Investigation Commission to answer charges of 32 counts of misconduct.
His federal sentencing is scheduled for January.