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Groh to take over as W.Va. circuit judge

January 14, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Gina M. Groh, the newly appointed judge in the 23rd Judicial Circuit, will be sworn in Feb. 16 at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, W.Va.

Groh will be sworn in by Robin Jean Davis, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

"I was very, very honored that she asked I swear her in," Davis said in an interview last week.

Davis, the only woman re-elected to a statewide office and lone female jurist on the state's five-seat appellate court in Charleston, was "absolutely delighted" to learn of Groh's appointment, which was announced Dec. 15 by Gov. Joe Manchin.

"This is her day," Davis said Wednesday of the Feb. 16 ceremony for Groh, who will become the third woman to hold a West Virginia circuit judge seat. Judges Irene C. Berger and Jennifer Bailey Walker of the 13th Judicial Circuit both preside in Kanawha County.

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Amid interviewing law clerk candidates last week, Groh said she was thrilled to have Davis swear her in.

Arrangements for the afternoon ceremony in Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr.'s courtroom will be finalized in the coming days, Groh said.

A Washington County native and Williamsport High School graduate, Groh, 42, was admitted to the West Virginia State Bar in 1989 after graduating from the West Virginia University College of Law that year.

After several years in private practice, Groh began prosecuting cases for the state in 1998 in Berkeley County. She became an assistant prosecutor in Jefferson County in 2002.

In her new position, Groh said her home base will be in a spare magistrate office in the Berkeley County Judicial Center in Martinsburg, and she will preside there in abuse and neglect proceedings. She will handle a portion of the civil cases opened in Jefferson County, in addition to the bulk of the Morgan County docket.

"All three of the counties have made me feel at home," Groh said.

Groh's appointment allowed for the circuit's increasingly weighty court docket to be reapportioned, said Steptoe, who will be the circuit's chief judge for the next two years.

"You'll see a lot more judges moving around," Steptoe said in an interview last week.

In addition to easing the burden on the judges themselves, Steptoe, 56, believes the public will benefit from having an additional judge by allowing cases to be adjudicated more efficiently.

The creation of a fifth circuit judge seat by state lawmakers last year came before the Morgan County Courthouse was destroyed by fire, but Groh said arrangements have been made for her to share space with the county's magistrate court until a new building is opened.

"I like going up there," said Groh, recalling trips to her grandparents' Morgan County farm as a young child. "I like Morgan County ... The people there are so nice. They're so welcoming there.

For practical purposes, Groh took the oath of office in late December, soon after Manchin announced her appointment. Her first day on the bench will be Jan. 29 in Morgan County for arraignment hearings.

Manchin's announcement came just after Davis wrote in the November/December issue of The West Virginia Lawyer magazine that women were not equally represented in the "key entry-level jobs that can lead to top law firms and judicial positions."

"State Bar records indicate that of the 4,500 actively practicing lawyers in West Virginia, about 27 percent are women," Davis wrote in a column titled "There aren't enough of us."

Davis said that about 25 percent of the nation's lawyers are women, but only seven of the 37 U.S. Supreme Court law clerks last year were female.

The disparity on West Virginia's circuit court benches is "glaring," Davis said last week.

Though gender rarely has been an issue in her career, Davis, 50, recalled being told by an older man at a campaign event in Huntington, W.Va., that she was too young to be a judge and that she should be home "raising your babies, instead of running for office."

"I politely told him I thought I would do a good job, and I took into account that he was old," Davis wrote in her column. "Really old."

Like Groh, Steptoe said fellow circuit judges Gray Silver III, Christopher C. Wilkes and David H. Sanders previously had tried cases in his courtroom.

"The transition from the bar to the bench is not an easy one," said Steptoe, who was elected in November 1984, and currently is the most tenured judge on the circuit.

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