Background on the Lawsuit Against Former Judge

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Two-Year Saga Culminates in This Week's Action

The lawsuit filed against former Wood County Circuit Judge George Hill this week, by his former court reporter, is just the latest in a series of events that relate to Hill's sudden retirement in February of 2006.

Among those events was a controversy that spread all the way to the Governor's mansion.

A Circuit Judge is sort of like a member of Congress -- once elected, they pretty much can count on staying in office as long as they want, unless they mess up big time.

People often complain about politicians but then re-elect them time after time after time.

George "Skip" Hill was pretty much assured of remaining on the bench that serves Wood and Wirt County as long as he wanted.

This, despite his tirades on the bench and his personal life which at one point involved one of his recent wives and a missing weapon.

A pretty amiable guy in public, Hill turned into something else altogether when he donned his judicial robe and took his seat in his courtroom.

He was known to issue rulings that had questionable basis in law, knowing they would be overturned on appeal. But he did it for spite or perhaps just to make the target of his anger run up legal fees.

The fact that it wasted the court's time and added to the logjam of pending cases never seemed to matter to him.

My favorite example is one that involved Hill and WTAP.

A number of years ago, our former News Director, Kathy Lucas Stephens, worked on a story about a custody battle between two families over a small child. As is often the case, it was a messy situation.

Kathy covered the case as it wound its way through Judge Hill's court. Along the way, we took great care not to release the name of the child or show the child’s face. One day, we shot some footage of the family outside the courthouse. In one brief segment of the video, you could see the back of the child's head and a portion of the child's left cheek.

Judge Hill asked Kathy to come to his courtroom. He issued no subpoena, it was merely a request. Or so we thought.

When she got there, Judge Hill took the bench and chastised her for showing the child's face. If anyone had seen the video and then had seen the child in public, I doubt that anyone could have guessed the child's identity based on what we showed. But that didn't matter to Judge Hill. Some would say he was standing up for the child's right to privacy. Others would say he was merely flexing his considerable judicial muscle. Either way, he ruled that as a result of showing that video, WTAP was barred from doing any other stories involving juveniles. Conceivably, that would have meant no more coverage of high school sports, parades, or hundreds of other stories in which we show the faces of children.

He knew it was a ruling that wouldn't stick, and indeed it didn't. Eventually, we were able to get that ruling reversed. It cost us some time and money, and it was all for naught.

It was just his way of entertaining himself.

According to this week’s lawsuit, the judge may have had other ways of entertaining himself as well. The suit claims he listened to pornographic material on his county-owned office computer in his courthouse office, and also touched certain female office staffers inappropriately. These are only allegations at this point, just like any other charge. He has not yet been proven guilty and is innocent until proven otherwise.

WTAP became aware of some of these allegations shortly after Hill's resignation.

We researched them and even contacted the state Supreme Court and the State Bar Association, to see if they had any records of how these allegations may have played a part in his decision to step down.

We wanted to know if he decided to slip out the door, rather than face public embarrassment from these allegations.

But none of these agencies wanted to talk about it.

WTAP decided to send one of its reporters to a retirement party for Judge Hill and to take him aside and quietly ask him about his resignation and these allegations. The reporter, who is no longer with us, decided not to ask the tough question at the last minute.

The plaintiff in the new civil case was understandably concerned about saying anything to the media at that time. Judge Hill was, and perhaps may still be, a pretty powerful person in Wood County . And she may have wanted to make sure her many years as a public servant in the Wood County Courthouse did not come to an abrupt and premature end, as well.

In the Spring of 2006, hearing rumors about the judge’s conduct, I personally inquired of a number of people who work daily in and around the courthouse, if they knew anything about his alleged use of his office computer to play pornographic and often very loud videos. None of them would speak about it on the record.

Judge Hill would only say he was retiring with a couple of years left on his term in office, to give his appointee some time to get experience in the job before having to stand for election.

But who would that appointee be?

That was a decision for Governor Joe Manchin. There were several people interested in the job. Manchin's long-time friend in the legislature, Democrat J.D. Beane, a local attorney, seemed to have the inside track. Former Wood County prosecutor and long-time Democrat, Michele Rusen, was another interested person.

Manchin put off the decision for more than nine months, saying he was still considering the candidates and had not yet made up his mind.

Ever the politician, Manchin decided not to make the announcement until after Beane had stood for re-election to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Then, surprise, surprise!

Shortly after Beane (a fellow Democrat) was re-elected to the House, Manchin appointed him to Hill's chair. That gave Wood County Democrats and Manchin the opportunity to also select Beane's replacement in the House, effectively allowing the Democrats to freeze both positions. It seems obvious that Governor Manchin was less than candid when denying that he had already made up his mind to appoint Beane, since he did so, right after Beane's victory.

And now, this civil suit against Judge Hill.

This is only a civil case. It is not a criminal case. But that's what wronged persons often have to do.

Just ask the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, who were denied justice in O.J. Simpson's murder trial and had to resort to civil justice.

The most despicable part of the case involving Judge Hill, if he is ever found liable, would be the way he dealt with sexual offenders.

On the bench, Hill often saved his highest level of vindictiveness for persons charged with or convicted of sexual crimes. I don't fault him for that.

But if the judge were sitting on the bench handing out tough sentences to criminals involved in sexual misdeeds, and then going back into his office and playing porn on his computer and creating a hostile workplace for his female employees, it would be unfair if he should be allowed to sneak out under his office door into retirement without facing the music.

Whether or not this case will ever go to court or whether the allegations will ever be confirmed by a jury or a judge remains to be seen.

Cases like this usually end with some sort of a settlement, and pledges by both sides to keep the terms confidential. That gives the plaintiff some satisfaction, but also allows the defendant to keep smiling in public.

No matter what happens, I'm glad that this long-festering sore will finally get reviewed in one manner or another.

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