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Steptoe, Thompson moving on

December 25, 2007

"There is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance."

- Thomas Jefferson

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. ? Those are the words that 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr. is living by these days.

After serving as judge since 1985, the 56-year-old Steptoe has decided it's time to move on.

Steptoe has decided he will not seek re-election when his term expires next year, and said he is looking forward to being able to explore other interests.

Another longtime Jefferson County politician is following the same path.

Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael D. Thompson, who also has served since 1985, has decided to step down when his term expires next year.

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Steptoe and Thompson have held their posts while the court system has grown to include more judges, expanded facilities and more attorneys in the prosecutor's office to juggle the growing needs of Jefferson County.

Steptoe: Early years were toughest

Steptoe was 33 when he was elected, and said he was told he was the youngest person to be elected circuit judge.

"I never looked into it," said Steptoe, who is completing his third eight-year term.

In addition to handling criminal cases, Steptoe at times also has had to wade into the complicated world of land use as some of Jefferson County's growth debates have ended up in court.

But it was Steptoe's early years that seem to stick in his mind as the toughest.

Steptoe said when he took office, there was a huge backlog of cases that was considered to be up to three times the amount that is considered manageable.

The backlog was so big that the Jefferson County circuit court system, along with a circuit court system in Kanawha County, were at risk of collapsing under their own weight, Steptoe said.

"The first two or three years were tough," Steptoe said. "There were times when I became discouraged."

Steptoe pushed himself, sometimes starting court as early as 6:30 a.m. to clear the backlog.

Thompson sees prosecuting attorney's office grow

When Thompson took over the prosecuting attorney's job, it was a part-time position, and he was assisted by two assistant prosecuting attorneys ? J. Michael Cassell and Ralph Lorenzetti, who now is chief assistant prosecuting attorney.

The prosecuting attorney's position now is full time, and the office consists of seven full-time attorneys, Thompson said. Part of the growth has included a civil division, which handles a growing number of legal issues that need to be handled for other governmental bodies including the Jefferson County Commission and the Jefferson County Planning Commission.

Thompson has served six four-year terms, and never has run opposed.

Now that he is 60 and reaching retirement age, Thompson said he believes it is time to step down.

"It's probably time to call it a day," Thompson said.

Future full of possibilities

Thompson said he is not sure what he will do after leaving the prosecutor's office, though law might stay in the picture.

"I might hang out a shingle," Thompson said. "I'm just not sure."

Thompson has had various interests over the years, including writing. His books over the years have included "The Iron Industry in Western Maryland," published in 1973, and "The History of the Charles Town Presbyterian Church," which came out in 1987.

Steptoe said he is considering several possibilities, including teaching.

Thompson and Steptoe are being praised for their professional approaches to their jobs.

Cassell, a Charles Town attorney who since has left the prosecutor's office, said there was chaos in the circuit court system in Jefferson County before Steptoe arrived. Cassell said he thinks Steptoe always will be remembered as being the one who returned integrity to the judge's position.

Regarding the prosecutor's office, Thompson always has provided top-notch legal service to a number of governmental agencies including the sheriff's department, assessor's office and the county commission, Cassell said.

"We can only hope that the people who take their places will do the same things," Cassell said.

"The county will certainly be less well-off without them," Jefferson County Assessor Ginger Bordier said.

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