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Veteran magistrates stepping down

March 31, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Gene Darlington and Ruth Donaldson, familiar faces in Berkeley County Magistrate Court for more than 20 years, have decided it's time to hang it up.

The long-time magistrates are leaving a job in which they've met countless people in a wide range of situations.

Day in and day out, county magistrates preside over dozens of cases involving charges from speeding to murder. They help cool off domestic fights, arraign drunken drivers, issue search warrants and settle rent disputes between landlords and tenants. They preside over scores of bench trials, ones with no juries, handing down decisions on misdemeanor cases such as petty larceny and destruction of property.

"There's always somebody in that hallway to be seen," Darlington said.

The people coming in for smaller cases such as trespassing or writing worthless checks are mixed at times with defendants charged with murder.

In felony cases, magistrates are required to hold hearings to determine if there is probable cause to send the case to circuit court.

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Donaldson and Darlington came to the job excited about what they did, but it became all-consuming, they said.

Before a law was passed in 1991 that allowed them to cut down on their hours, magistrates practically lived at their jobs sometimes, the two said.

Every time a police officer arrested someone, the magistrate would have to come to magistrate court for an arraignment, no matter what time it was, Darlington said.

Darlington said when he had weekend duty, sometimes he would stay in the court building all weekend. When asked where he slept, he pointed at a couch in the office.

"I would never do that again. I would never deprive my family and treat them like that again," Darlington said. "And maybe we should have never done that. Who cares if we put in 12 hours a day?"

The two magistrates regretted not being home more for Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations because of work.

"I missed so many things," said Donaldson, who is stepping down after 24 years.

Darlington said he liked magistrate court more when it was considered a "people's court." That was when two parties came in, laid their problem out on the table, and the magistrate helped them settle the matter.

Now many of the parties in the cases have their own attorneys, who make objections and motions, which stretches out the cases, Darlington said. And to make matters worse, the caseload has tripled since 1977, the magistrates said.

There was an unsuccessful attempt in the most recent session of the Legislature to create a fifth magistrate position in Berkeley County, and Darlington and Donaldson said the bill's failure is one of the main reasons they have decided to quit the job, which pays $37,000 a year.

Donaldson said that after she steps down, she plans to apply for "senior status magistrate," which would allow her to fill in when regular magistrates are sick.

Darlington said he will continue working, but he is not sure where.

"Wherever the Lord leads me. He'll open the door, I know that," he said.

Six candidates are running for the county's four magistrate seats this year.

Darlington and Donaldson will serve until the end of the year.

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