The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 3, 2014

Pomponio reflects on judicial career

LEWISBURG — Throughout his career, Joseph C. Pomponio Jr. has been the sort of man who seems to naturally take the helm, whether it’s as a commercial airline captain, child advocate attorney, lawmaster or judge in family court and circuit court.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my life; I’ve been blessed,” Pomponio said as he prepared to close one chapter of his life and start another.

After serving seven years as a judge in West Virginia’s 11th Judicial Circuit (Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties), Pomponio decided to retire, citing “family matters,” more specifically health issues now facing his wife, Betty.

“My wife needs me,” the 70-year-old jurist said simply. “She has supported me in everything I have done. Now, it’s my turn to be there for her.”

That his retirement would begin at the end of February was quite appropriate, Pomponio said, noting, “February has always been a big month for me.”

Among the other big events that have marked February as particularly special, the judge said, “I was hired in February; I was appointed to the 11th Circuit (in 2007 by then-Gov. Joe Manchin). My daughter got engaged (this year), and my birthday is in February.”

The Pomponios have four children. Daughter Nicole — she of the February engagement — works for Veterans Services in Arlington, Va. Eldest son Bren is an attorney with Mountain State Justice in Charleston, and youngest son Joseph III owns a construction business in Florida. Jason, the middle son, is a commander in the U.S. Navy. Having served in Afghanistan and other trouble spots, Jason and his family will soon depart for his next assignment — in Naples, Italy, according to his proud father.

Reflecting on his career on the bench — which also includes 13 years as a lawmaster and judge in the 15th Family Court Circuit (Greenbrier and Monroe counties) — Pomponio said the most rewarding part of the job was establishing the Day Report Center and Drug Court in Greenbrier County.

“We have a tremendous drug problem in this country; it impacts all of us,” the judge said. “Drug abuse destroys families.”

With the option of going through the Drug Court and Day Report diversion and treatment program, offenders “can deal with their addiction and not end up convicted felons,” Pomponio said. “They can be productive. They fail sometimes, but at least they get another chance.”

He said, prior to the establishment of those programs, a drug offender typically would be convicted and sent to jail, only to find himself (or herself) no longer able to get a decent job upon release, due to having a criminal record, as well as such barriers as no longer being eligible for a driver’s license. Discouraged, the individual often ends up re-offending and going back to jail in an endless cycle of futility.

“Everybody makes mistakes in life,” Pomponio said. “I’ve made mistakes. ‘There but for the grace of God,’ I say.”

In recent comments about the judge’s retirement, Greenbrier County Commission President Karen Lobban also emphasized Pomponio’s role in bringing the drug offender diversion program to the county.

“I went to Mercer County with him to see how their Drug Court and Day Report Center operated,” Lobban recalled. “We decided to start our own, and now it’s the best in the state.”

She added, “I hate to see Judge Pomponio go. He’s been wonderful to work with.”

Told of Lobban’s remarks, Pomponio acknowledged, “I have had a good relationship with the county commission.”

But he quickly downplayed his personal responsibility for the local drug diversion program, saying, “The success of this program isn’t due to me. Its success is due to the good people working in it.”

He pointed particularly to the diligence of Laura Legg, director of the Day Report Center, and his colleague on the 11th Circuit bench, Judge James J. Rowe, who is the county’s Drug Court judge.

Turning back to his own career’s high and low moments, Pomponio said he has found the most challenging aspect to be dealing with juvenile offenders.

“They don’t fully understand the consequences of their conduct,” he said. “They don’t want to go to school, and when they don’t go, the school kicks them out. That’s what (the juveniles) wanted all along.”

When those young people end up in court, truancy is often just one component of a larger problem.

“We have authority to place a juvenile out of the home for truancy, for status offenses,” Pomponio said. “You’d be surprised how well they do in a structured environment. They blossom.

“But we can’t keep them in the system forever. They have to return to their families at some point, and many times they return to their old bad habits when they’re back in that environment.

“It’s tragic. Sometimes we lose them.”

Although Pomponio plans to continue in his chosen profession beyond his Feb. 28 retirement date — including providing continuity in the 11th Circuit until a successor is appointed to fulfill the two years remaining in his current eight-year term — it will be as one of West Virginia’s senior status judges.

Pomponio and his wife plan to continue to live in Lewisburg most of the year following his retirement but to winter in Florida, the state where he spent most of his childhood and graduated from college and law school.

“We have a place in Tampa in a retirement community,” Pomponio said. “We bought it in 2008 because I was not expecting to win the 2008 election (for a full term on the 11th Circuit bench). I’m not much of a politician, but I had promised the governor I would run when he appointed me.”

The judge gave the lion’s share of the credit for his victory in that election to friends like Allen and Paula Carson, who offered personal support and publicly campaigned for him.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Pomponio said of his successful campaign.

“People have accepted me here,” he said.

“It has been a privilege and a pleasure to serve the people of Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties,” Pomponio said. “I’ve gotten tremendous support from the employees at both courthouses, and without my secretary, Valerie ...,” he paused, “I just can’t thank her enough. I will miss everyone here.”

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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