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Federal magistrate courtroom dedicated

June 20, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Robert A. Merhige Jr., a federal judge known for desegrating Virginia schools in the 1970s, was honored in Martinsburg Monday for coming to the aid of his colleagues in West Virginia nearly 20 years ago to handle a deluge of drug-trafficking cases.

"He's a hero among heroes to judges on the bench," said chief U.S. district Judge Irene M. Keeley in a dedication ceremony for the magistrate courtroom at the federal building in Martinsburg.

Keeley was joined by Northern District judges W. Craig Broadwater, Frederick P. Stamp Jr. and Robert E. Maxwell, who along with U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., unveiled a plaque mounted outside the first-floor courtroom in Merhige's memory.

"He knew how to talk to people. He understood human nature," said Maxwell, who like Merhige was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Merhige served 31 years on the federal bench before retiring in 1998. He died in February 2005 at age 86, according to published reports.

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Maxwell was the only district judge in the Northern District when Merhige volunteered to help adjudicate a number of cases that resulted from a massive drug raid by police in October 1986 in the Eastern Panhandle, assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas O. Mucklow recalled.

"The big city was already here, in terms of drug trafficking," Mucklow said.

The dedication culminates the renovation of a building that Broadwater said cost less than $10 million to complete, but came with some sacrifice in comfort for the staff, who at times endured drilling he described as "dental therapy."

Before the building was reconfigured, Keeley said there was nothing user-friendly about what she described as a 1950s relic.

"This is a magnificent courthouse," she told a crowd of about 150 invited guests, political leaders and members of the legal community.

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