Dave Mistich Published

Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely Dead At 79


Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely has died at the age of 79 of liver cancer. His death was confirmed by the court and associates who had worked alongside him for years.

Neely has been widely regarded as one of the greatest legal minds in the state. Despite controversy at times, he was known by his friends and associates as a “colorful character” who said what was on his mind.

At the time of his death on Sunday, Neely was a partner at Neely & Callaghan in Charleston.

“They broke the mold when they made Richard Neely, because there’s been nobody like him ever,” said Mike Callaghan, Neely’s partner at the firm. “I would say he is going to be remembered as one of the most brilliant legal minds to ever be in West Virginia.”

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1967, Neely served in Vietnam. Upon returning home, he began practicing law in Fairmont and was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

He took a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals as a Democrat in 1973, making him — at the time — the youngest person to sit on the bench of a state supreme court.

Through his legal opinions, books and other writings in national publications, Neely was highly regarded for his work in domestic law.

Neely found himself steeped in controversy when he fired a secretary in 1985 who had refused to continue babysitting his son. While he defended having staff perform such duties, Neely stepped down as Chief Justice before his term ended — but remained on the court until 1995.

“He said some things that really got your attention,” Callaghan said of Neely.

Many prominent figures in West Virginia politics — and from all political stripes — chimed in to remember Neely.

“Justice Neely was an influential legal mind, who received national acclaim and notoriety for his legal abilities and his time as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia,” state Democratic Party chair Belinda Biafore said in a statement. “He was a forceful presence on the laws of this state and his legacy and impact on our state will continue after his passing.”

Top Republicans also offered condolences, including U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.

“Justice Neely was a wonderful man, great legal mind, and a good and loyal friend to our family. Our thoughts go to Carolyn and the entire Neely family,” Capito said in a statement that was also posted to Twitter. “I know Charlie and I will miss seeing Richard and Carolyn on their daily walks around Charleston. What a loss.”

Gov. Jim Justice said Monday that flags would be lowered and flown at half staff to remember the late justice.

“We acknowledge the great service and all the incredible wisdom he gave the state of West Virginia,”Justice said during a Monday news conference on the coronavirus pandemic.

Neely unsuccessfully ran in June of this year for a seat on the state’s high court in a nonpartisan election, losing to Chief Justice Tim Armstead.