CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court storm is over.
That’s what Circuit Judge Alan Moats said Jan. 4 during the swearing in ceremony for new Justice John Hutchison.
“For over a year, our Supreme Court and its justices have been engulfed in a great storm,” said Moats, a veteran circuit judge for Taylor and Barbour counties. “When a great storm occurs, it causes great damage.
“But, no storm lasts forever. It always ends. The clouds part. The sun returns. A full assessment of damage can be made, and the restoration process can begin. A great storm won’t be forgotten, but the damage is causes can be repaired.”
Moats said the drama of the last year has “adversely impacted” the Supreme Court.
“It has severely damaged the court’s reputation in the eyes of the public,” he said. “The court’s storm ends today. Today, our court is restored to a full complement of five justices … five good people who have pledged to work together, united as a team, to fully assess the damage that has been done, to put corrective steps in place to begin the long process to restore the confidence, trust and faith in our court. It is a new beginning for our Supreme Court.
“It is a day of new beginnings. It is a new beginning for Judge John Hutchison as he becomes Justice John Hutchison.”
Justice didn't attend the ceremony at the state Supreme Court chambers, but he did issue a statement.
"I have known John Hutchison nearly all my life and as a judge for many years now he has proven to be a very fair and caring arbiter," the governor said. "I congratulate him and am certain he will bring those principles to our Supreme Court that will help continue to restore the confidence of our citizens in our highest court."
Moats said judges across the state look up to Hutchison.
“We have to … he’s 6-feet-6,” Moats joked. “And sometimes, he looks even taller than that. But most of all, we respect him. When he speaks, the judges listen.
“And when this vacancy came open, judges from all over this state called the governor and said, ‘Please appoint a long-serving circuit court judge who is highly respected and highly accomplished to this position.’ The governor heeded those calls.
“Throughout history, difficult circumstances have dictated that a particular person be willing to stand up, step forward and serve. That time is now for John Hutchison. He brings four decades of experience as a lawyer and a judge with a vast and unsurpassed historical knowledge to this position.”
Hutchison said he is ready to serve.
“I’m very proud and yet very humbled to be allowed to have this opportunity to serve the citizens of West Virginia in this important position,” he said after he was sworn in. “I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to be the most ethical judge in the state. My job has been to interpret and apply the law regardless of my opinions. I plan to do that on this court.”
And, Hutchison said he is ready to work.
“I’m here to work on cases and to work with my colleagues,” he said. “I will also work for all of the court employees across the state. Mostly, I’m here to work for everyone in West Virginia in an intelligent, positive and ethical manner. I will work hard. I will work in any way possible to make the judicial branch the best it can be.
“I firmly believe cooperation between all three branches of government is required for West Virginia to achieve the greatness it deserves and that it has earned.”
Office renovations have been a focus of the Supreme Court. Hutchison said he has been assigned former Justice Robin Jean Davis’s office. He jokingly called it “the ice palace” because of the metal and glass décor.”
“I am sure that when it was done, it was lovely,” Hutchison said. “But it’s probably not me. It needs a coat of paint.
“Upon my arrival, I found a beautiful Cass Gilbert desk in that space. Yes, THE Cass Gilbert desk, if you will recall. And there was a rather ugly black sofa that was left in the office.”
Hutchison said he’s bringing an 18-year-old chair he purchased from the Raleigh County Commission, a reading chair, a reading lamp and a small book rack he built himself.
“The office will not be stylish, but it will be functional,” he said.
Hutchison also talked about his love of West Virginia.
“My roots and deeply and firmly implanted in this place we call home,” he said. “I was born here. I’ve lived here. I’ve been educated here, and I’ve worked here my entire life. West Virginia has been very good to me. I will continue to do my best to repay this state and its citizens for the benefits it and they have given to me and my family.”
Former Justice Tom McHugh noted the importance of the Supreme Court.
“Whatever the reputation of the Supreme Court may be, all of the courts of the state benefit or suffer,” he said. “The reputation of the court is so important. Impartiality is what the public knows. If the public gets the sense that there is no impartiality, it’s a doomed court.
“It is not a superior branch of government. It is not a lesser branch of government. But it is an independent branch of government.
“Justice Hutchison, there is great power in this court, but it must be used with great restraint. You will wear the mantle of the court proudly for all West Virginians. It is with the highest pride that I see you become a justice of this great institution. You are highly qualified. All of us wish you the best.”
Federal Magistrate Judge Dwane Tinsley played college basketball with Hutchison. During Friday’s ceremony, he recalled rides he and Hutchison shared back and forth from college to the Beckley area, where they both grew up.
“I am confident that he will play an integral part – along with the other justices – to restore the respect, tradition and integrity to this honorable court,” Tinsley said.
Gov. Jim Justice appointed Hutchison, a lifelong friend, to the court last month. Hutchison, who had been a Raleigh Circuit Judge since 1995, is taking the seat of convicted former Justice Allen Loughry.
Hutchison 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.
Hutchison was born in and raised in Beckley. He has a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Davis and Elkins College – where he also played basketball – and a law degree from West Virginia University College of Law.
From 1972 to 1974 he was an assistant basketball coach at D&E and from 1974 to 1997 he taught and coached in Raleigh County Schools. From 1975 to 1977 he served as dorm director and assistant basketball coach at Concord University.
Hutchison practiced law in Raleigh County for 10 years with Gorman, Sheatsley and Hutchison. In 1991, he opened the Nationwide Insurance West Virginia Trial Division Office and served as its managing trial attorney for four years.
Then‐Gov. Gaston Caperton appointed him as a Raleigh Circuit Judge in 1995. He was elected in 1996 and re‐elected in 2000 and 2008. He is a member of the Supreme Court’s Mass Litigation Panel and was a judicial representative on the Commission to Study Residential Placement of Children.
Hutchison has been appointed several times to sit on the Supreme Court when a justice has been recused. He has been treasurer, secretary, vice president, and president of the West Virginia Judicial Association and he has been chairman and vice‐chairman of the association’s legislative and pensions committees.
Hutchison is married to Victoria Lagowski Hutchison, and they have two children and two grandchildren.
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 later this month.