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Retiring judge honored at banquet

January 28, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Special to The Herald-Mail

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA. -- "All Rise!"

The booming voice of longtime bailiff Robbie Roberts announced "The Honorable Judge Thomas Steptoe" as the retiring Jefferson County jurist entered the banquet hall at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center for a dinner in his honor.

Nearly 200 guests stood up at Roberts' order Wednesday night as Steptoe, 57, came into the room to hear anecdotes and accolades noting his 24 years on the bench. He was elected in 1984 at age 33, one of the youngest judges in the state.

Steptoe succeeded Pierre E. Dostert, a controversial jurist who held the job for the previous eight years.

Steptoe and Patrick Henry, a Berkely County judge, were elected at the same time. They were the only judges in the 23rd Circuit, which covers Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

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Steptoe and Henry, who was defeated in 1992, were reminiscing about those early days in the hall before the banquet began.

"Today, there are five judges in the circuit," Henry said.

"It was a very challenging docket. We had to handle all the domestic and juvenile cases. There were no family law masters," he said.

Since then, the Eastern Panhandle's population has grown and the docket has doubled, they said.

Henry came to the bench following years as a Berkeley County prosecutor. Steptoe, a state delegate when he filed for the judge's job, was working in the law firm started by his father, Thomas Steptoe Sr. The firm handled mainly real estate and wills, Steptoe said.

"My father always used to say that if you kept your client out of court, you were doing him a favor," Steptoe said.

He said he had to learn about being a judge "on the job."

Judge David Sanders, a 16-year veteran in the circuit, is Steptoe's successor in Jefferson County.

He recalled the days of the Dostert court in remarks Wednesday night.

Sanders came to the Eastern Panhandle in the early 1980s to work in the public defender's office.

At the time, he said in reference to Dostert's judicial style, "Charles Town was home to a gun-toting judge (Dostert) who was suspended for six months by the West Virginia Supreme Court for ordering the arrest of Detlev Preissler, then a Harpers Ferry contractor, who landed a helicopter on his lawn. Dostert tried to remove the county prosecutor for not prosecuting the case like he ordered."

Dostert left the bench in 1984, six months before his term ended. He died Feb. 24, 1998.

Speaker after speaker Wednesday praised Steptoe for his for patience, wisdom and gentlemanly ways on and off the bench.

Linda Gutsell, a former Steptoe law clerk, said he "walked a path that was soft-spoken and always with humility. I never heard him raise his voice."

The manner in which Steptoe lived defined the judge that he was, Gutsell said. "Getting it right drove every one of his decisions," she said.

Judge Christopher Wilkes, elected to the Berkeley County bench in 1992, called Steptoe "the fairest man I've ever known. He always painted with the brush of fairness. When I came on, he was the senior judge in the circuit. I learned a lot from him."

Steptoe and his wife, Sharon, live in Charles Town. They have two children, Annie, a senior at Harvard University, and Phillip, a private boarding school student in Massachusetts.

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