Entire Supreme Court recused from case involving chief justice

Posted on behalf of The Bell Law Firm, PLLC on May 13, 2011 in Wrongful Death

In a rare move, the entire West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals recused itself from a case. Circuit court judges from across the state replaced the five justices during arguments of a case that directly involved the chief justice. The circuit judges will decide the case as well.

The issue before the court involves attorney fees associated with a deliberate intent (worker's compensation) claim. The chief justice represented the plaintiff in that suit and the companion negligence action.

The case goes back 11 years, to a flood in 2000. The plaintiff was the estate of a woman who had drowned while helping to move merchandise from the store where she worked during the flood. The water rose more quickly than expected, and the woman drowned as firefighters attempted to rescue her and her colleagues.

As plaintiff's attorney, the chief justice entered an arrangement with an attorney from another firm to help with the complicated matter.

The other attorney took care of the worker's compensation claim. The chief justice objected to the settlement her colleague had negotiated, saying it was too low. A Kanawha County court ultimately decided the settlement was fair.

The court also awarded fees to each of the attorneys. The other attorney disagreed with the court's decision and filed the appeal now before the Supreme Court of Appeals.

The chief justice disqualified herself in late March of 2010, just a month after the appeal was filed. By the end of that week, the remaining four judges had recused themselves as well.

The full-panel recusal is unusual but not unheard of, according to the court's public information officer. Although no one has kept track of it, she recalls a story from a circuit judge's biography:

In February 1985, the judge was appointed by the chief justice to serve on a panel with four other circuit judges. All of the justices had disqualified themselves, and circuit judges were appointed to hear the case.

The circuit judge was the Honorable Booker Stephens, of the state's 8th Judicial Circuit. He was the first black judge in the history of West Virginia to sit on the Supreme Court of Appeals.

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