Richard Neely calls himself “America’s laziest and dumbest judge.” And sometimes, it’s hard to dispute him.
He suggests attacking drug dealers with baseball bats. He believes sex offenders are the modern-day equivalent of Salem’s witches. He gives this unsolicited advice to a conference of 350 teen-age boys: “Tape a rubber to your American Express card and don’t leave home without it.”
A member of the West Virginia Supreme Court, Neely is an author, an academic, a public speaker--and, always, an outrageous figure.
“I don’t really care, you see. I’m 51 years old. I’ve got nowhere else to go. You think they’re going to name me for the Supreme Court instead of (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg?” he said. “Being a judge is like having cancer. You don’t go anywhere from there.”
Justices serve 12-year terms in West Virginia. But Neely, who is up for reelection again in 1996, said he considers himself a judge “forever.”
This jurist’s prudence is sometimes left on the bench:
* In 1986, he sued TWA for $38,000 after his baggage arrived 70 minutes late at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He sought $3,000 from the airline as a speaker’s fee because he informed fellow passengers about the delay. He said he settled out of court for $12,500.
* In 1989, he told the American Legion youth leadership conference that police cannot prevent crime. He said, “It’s time for citizens like you and me to go home and get our baseball bats” to attack drug dealers.
* In 1990, Neely told the American Legion boys that society would be better off if women stayed home with their children. He said drinking, womanizing and fighting in wars are all right until men have a family.
* In 1990, he said he “wouldn’t work within 500 yards of a person with the AIDS virus.”
* Neely, seeking a clerk, once placed this ad in the Virginia Law Weekly: “West Virginia’s infamous once and future Chief Justice Richard Neely, America’s laziest and dumbest judge, seeks a bright person to keep him from looking stupid. Preference will be given to U. Va. law students who studied interesting but useless subjects at snobby schools. If you are dead drunk and miss the interviews, send letters.”
Neely, grandson of a West Virginia governor, grew up in coal country, studied economics at Dartmouth University and earned his law degree at Yale University. He served in Vietnam as an artillery captain, practiced law and served one term in the Legislature.
In 1972, he became the youngest judge on an appellate court at 31. He was West Virginia’s chief justice, a rotating position, at 38.
Neely’s six books--his seventh is due next year--are full of radical proposals for improving justice and society. His legal opinions challenge tradition at every wherefore. One on the constitutionality of limits on punitive damage awards prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to review its position.
Neely said the amount of damages assessed against corporations found to be negligent should be less if the officials were “really stupid,” but damages should be more if they were “really mean.”
“What other judge would categorize defendants in tort cases as ‘really mean’ and ‘really stupid’?” said David Remes, a Washington, D.C., constitutional lawyer. “That’s just the kind of label that cuts through the cant and focuses everyone on what’s really going on in a case.”
Neely also admits to tilting the law in favor of West Virginians who sue out-of-state corporations in product liability cases.
“Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone else’s money away, but so is my job security, because in-state plaintiffs, their families and their friends will reelect me,” he wrote in his book, “The Product Liability Mess.”
“He put in bold black letters something many of us know to be true but don’t say,” said Victor Schwartz, a Washington, D.C., product liability lawyer.
“He’s obviously extremely intelligent,” said Peter Huber, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York City think tank. “He’s got a sharp mind. And he’s not the least bit afraid of stating his views. Critics would say he’s injudicious. I don’t find him injudicious. I find him refreshing.”
But the reviews aren’t all raves.
“Someone should drag him kicking and screaming into the 20th Cntury,” said the current chief justice, Margaret Workman, after Neely’s remark about women staying home with children.
Justice W. T. Brotherton Jr. said, “He has these periods when he does these things. I never have understood why. I’ve mentioned to him that he shouldn’t do these things. But he’s a grown man. He does what he wants to.”
Don Marsh, former editor of the Charleston Gazette, said Neely tries to “out-macho himself.”
“He ought to be an advertising writer, really,” Marsh said.