Ex-attorney taking case to state's high court

December 06, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. ¿¿¿ — A well-known former Martinsburg defense attorney who was found guilty of 11 misdemeanor counts of practicing law without a license in May has petitioned the state’s high court to reverse his convictions.
Steven M. Askin, 62, was fined $1,100 in July and ordered to pay court costs by 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gina M. Groh. She concluded that Askin’s legal advice, while in violation of the law in her opinion, did not appear to hurt any of the people whom authorities said he helped.
Indicted in February 2009, Askin has said that no individual ever had been criminally prosecuted on charges of practicing law without a license since the statute was enacted more than 85 years ago and contends in his petition to the state’s high court that the code section should be considered void.
Askin’s license was annulled by the state’s high court in 1998, two years after he voluntarily surrendered it.
In his petition to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, Askin argues that Groh erred when she denied his motion to dismiss his indictment due to prosecutorial misconduct. He also contends the indictment itself violated the state constitution and claims his right to due process of law was violated by the “vague and over broad language” in state code that was relied upon to seek his convictions.
Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely deferred to Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chris Quasebarth when asked for a comment Monday, saying the top prosecutor in her office was handling the case.
Quasebarth said he had not reviewed Askin’s appeal and declined to comment. He said he expected the high court would take up Askin’s appeal in the spring. If the court decides to hear arguments, then a decision might not be rendered until next fall, Quasebarth said.
Askin testified in November 2009 in a bench trial that he might have violated state court rules for unlawfully practicing law that are enforced administratively, but doesn’t think the allegations met the threshold of the criminal statute for practicing without a license.
Individuals who testified during the two-day trial said they talked with Askin about their legal matters over meals at local restaurants and at Mountain State University’s Martinsburg campus, where Askin taught classes. He no longer teaches there.
Almost every witness who met with Askin indicated they couldn’t afford to hire an attorney and met him through family members or friends. Askin said in his petition that he did not “falsely promote himself” or advertise himself as a licensed practicing attorney and therefore did not commit the crime.
In his appeal to the high court, Askin said Games-Neely and Quasebarth “interjected themselves” in a civil reinstatement proceeding against him in 2007 by sending letters to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel advocating that his law license not be reinstated.
Because of their prior actions, Askin argues they should have been disqualified from prosecuting the case and that Groh subsequently erred when she denied his motion to dismiss the indictment because of prosecutorial misconduct.
“Due to the indictment being returned, all proceedings in (my) reinstatement proceedings were understandably placed on hold, even though the Office of Disciplinary Counsel was prepared to send a report to the West Virginia Supreme Court asking the court to schedule a hearing on said petition,” Askin said in his petition.

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