Article By: Karen Gardner
Photos By: Josh Triggs
Debra McLaughlin brings a slightly different perspective to her role as a circuit court judge in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia than most new judges.
The 18-year veteran of the Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney office has an extensive background in criminal law. Historically, judges elected to the circuit courts in the region tend to come from a civil law background. McLaughlin says her background complements those of circuit judges Michael Lorensen and Christopher Wilkes, both of whom she said were more experienced in civil law before becoming elected to the judicial bench.
McLaughlin and her husband, Kevin, an emergency room physician at War Memorial Hospital in Berkeley Springs, moved to the Morgan County community in 1999. Soon after, she became Morgan County’s Prosecuting Attorney, a post she held until she was appointed judge by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice in September.
McLaughlin was appointed after Judge John Yoder, who presided over the courtroom in Jefferson County, passed away after suffering complications from heart surgery in June. Now McLaughlin is running for election to fill out the remaining six years in Yoder’s term. The election is in May. McLaughlin has three potential opponents, but she is the only one running who was a previously elected Prosecuting Attorney.
McLaughlin has wanted to become a judge ever since she served an internship in a juvenile probation office in Prince William County, Virginia, while in college. “I wanted to talk to juveniles and influence what they do,” she said.
She had planned to seek a judicial post when her children where all graduated from high school. Her oldest child is now in college, while her two younger daughters still attend Berkeley Springs High School. But when McLaughlin was offered the judicial appointment, she decided to accept it.
“This seemed to be the right time to make the move to show the communities what I can do before I face an election,” she said in an interview in her office at the Jefferson County Courthouse. “Prosecutors here are elected by the individual counties, but judges are elected to serve in all three counties.”
Typically, newly elected judges serve in Morgan County before coming to the more populated areas of Berkeley and Jefferson counties, but McLaughlin’s role as prosecutor in the county precludes her adjudicating cases she has prosecuted. It could be a year or more before she can hear cases in Morgan County.
The McLaughlins were drawn to Berkeley Springs when Kevin McLaughlin was seeking a surgery practice in the late 1990s. At the time, they were living in Pennsylvania. While her husband was considering an association with War Memorial, McLaughlin met Bill Harmison, a local private practice attorney, through hospital gatherings, and Harmison decided to hire her. Harmison was partners with David Savasten, who also worked as a part-time local prosecutor. The couple decided to make the move, and McLaughlin became a part-time assistant prosecutor while building her civil practice.
In 2002, McLaughlin was appointed as the county’s full-time Prosecuting Attorney. A short time later, she was elected to the position. She was able to persuade the county commissioners to combine a secretarial position with a part-time assistant position to create a full-time assistant prosecutor position, helping to ease the workload.
As a judge, she is likely to hear more civil cases than criminal cases but the workload between the two in Eastern Panhandle circuit courts is about half and half. “I’m more comfortable hearing juvenile, abuse and neglect and criminal cases than civil cases,” she said. She does, however, hear civil cases, and the same basic legal principles apply.
“One of the first trials I presided over was a medical malpractice case, and it went smoothly,” she said. “It’s important to allow attorneys to try a case, present the evidence and to do it within the law.” The verdict was in favor of the defendant, and although she said, “One side wasn’t as pleased,” both sides in the case seemed to agree that their story was told.
While most cases in Circuit Court are resolved by plea agreements (criminal) or mediation (civil) the remaining contested cases are typically decided by a jury. “My job is to make sure the evidence is presented fairly,” she said.
Because parties in a civil case are paying attorneys on each side, many cases are resolved by cost analysis and mediation. Criminal cases are different. Prosecutors are salaried. Defendants often have a court- appointed attorney, so the focus is not on the legal cost. Judges must keep cases moving by setting time lines and trial dates. “You want to keep the pressure on both sides,” she said. “To the extent that people are incarcerated, you don’t want to bump it out (meaning a trial date), if we can get the case heard quickly.”McLaughlin feels she has an advantage over her opponents because she has tried more cases before juries. She also stressed her experience working with children.
She feels the most important cases she has handled are abuse and neglect cases involving children. “A child’s future hinges on these cases,” she said. The cases were often complicated by a revolving door of staff. Social workers from West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources would change, judges would change, court-appointed defense attorneys would change. “I’d be the only player from start to finish,” she said. “There’s not much continuity.”
People coming into the middle of a case often don’t have the same understanding as those who have been there from the start.
Many prosecutors don’t want to handle child abuse and neglect cases, and prefer to hand them off to younger staff. “I think that’s sad,” McLaughlin said. “Abuse and neglect cases need our input.”
Abuse and neglect cases change from county to county, even within the Eastern Panhandle. “DHHR in Morgan works out of Berkeley County,” she said. “Every time you get a new worker, you’ve got to teach them what services in the community are available.”
The key is to help families stay together, she said. “If we can keep families together, we need to address the substance abuse issues and domestic violence issues that tear them apart. Kids love their parents. Kids tend to be much more successful if you can correct the parents’ behavior.” In addition, there aren’t enough foster homes to take in all the children who need services.“The other thing that makes coming into this job easier is my familiarity with sentencing,” she said. “As Prosecutor, we make sentencing recommendations based upon criminal history and the nature of the crime. I have experience in recognizing the people who are just trying to manipulate the system versus those who want to change and need the help.”
Drug court is something she is working with as a judge. The program has only been in the Eastern Panhandle for about five years. “We’re learning how to utilize it as a treatment program,” she said. “There are going to be relapses before you have success.”
Drug court has taken on new importance as drug addictions have become more dangerous. Addiction is a decades-old problem in the Eastern Panhandle, but additives have made drugs more powerful. Drug court is about changing a person’s way of life.
“It’s building self-esteem, finding jobs and getting them into the community, which is key for those accepted into drug court,” McLaughlin said.
The program started as an outgrowth of Berkeley County’s day reporting center. The numbers are small, but that increases the program’s chance of success, McLaughlin said. “We meet with them once a week to inquire how treatment is going, how the families are.”The two-year program uses community service, counseling and frequent attendance at AA or NA meetings. It emphasizes community participation rather than jail sentences. A team approach is used to help participants. Expectations must be consistent. “I just added my first person,” she said.
McLaughlin, 49, has a life that extends well beyond law. She and her husband have been married 24 years. She has spent much of her free time taking her children Colin, Katherine and Erin, to soccer games and coaching them. She also helps coach the high school soccer team. “I’m a true soccer mom,” she said with a smile. “I carry the balls and cones in the back of my van.”
McLaughlin’s love for soccer goes back to her own college days, when she played for St. Francis University. She later earned her law degree at the University of Kansas.
“I’m committed to justice, family and community,” she said. “When you’re committed to family and community, justice naturally follows. We’ve always done things together as a family, and we’ve always done sports together as a family.”
Her kids also play softball and basketball. “Having kids involved in sports teaches them how to manage their time,” she said. The family attends St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Berkeley Springs, where McLaughlin previously served as a Eucharistic minister, a member of the finance committee and a Sunday school preschool teacher.
Managing her time is something McLaughlin contends with regularly as she balances her judicial career and family life.
Much of her work as judge happens outside the courtroom, whether it’s reading, researching or working with court staff. For many years as a prosecutor, one of her key assistants was Melanie Shambaugh, a one-time paralegal for Morgan County who is now the county’s Circuit Clerk. “Being a prosecutor or a judge, I can’t do it by myself,” she said. “Having good people around you is critical to your being successful.”