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Justice Margaret Workman discusses life, career

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The first in her family to go to college and the first woman elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court, Margaret Workman has broken through many barriers in her lifetime.

The state Supreme Court justice grew up in Charleston's west side, when her father, a coal miner, moved to the Capital City to become a firefighter.

"Back in that era, women didn't really have these big dreams to hold high offices," said Workman, sitting in her Capitol Complex office. "I remember when I was in ninth grade my homeroom teacher asked me where I was going to college. That was the first time I had thought about it."

And at that moment, Workman knew what she wanted to do. She started saving money for college, later attending West Virginia University and going on to receive her law degree from the WVU College of Law.

"When I was in law school, there were four women in each class, up until the last few years. Then, there was an influx of women and more and more were getting into law school," Workman recalled.

While she was in school, Workman was hired for the summer to work in the then-Gov. Hulett Smith's office.

"Here I was, this quiet, shy, horn-rimmed glasses kid, who was passive — exposed to people in this governmental political environment," Workman said. "These were high-powered people. It opened my interest in government."

Fresh out of law school, Workman started her career path in government as an assistant counsel to the U.S. Senate Public Works Committee under Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va.  

Continuing on her path, Workman worked as a law clerk in Kanawha County, an advance person in the Carter Presidential Campaign, served on Sen. Jay Rockefeller's campaign and later started her own law practice in Charleston, according to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Seven years before she was elected to the state's highest court, Workman was appointed as a Kanawha County Circuit Court judge.

With the upcoming primary election, Workman said she knew she had to get out and work hard. And her hard work paid off with a successful run for the unexpired term in 1982 and another successful bid in 1984 for full term.

During her term as a circuit judge, Workman traveled around the state to prisons and juvenile facilities — something that later would turn into an inspiration for one of her special projects at the state's highest court.

Four years after her run for circuit judge, Workman, who had three children and a full schedule at her job, decided to run for the state's highest court.

"It was kind of crazy," Workman recalled, saying she has never been good at raising money.

Workman said at that time, women had a much harder time running successful campaigns because there was a need to raise more money than male opponents.

"I was fortunate that I was successful in the elections I ran," she said.

When she first came to the bench, she said she didn't know what to expect because of the contentious campaign, with five people running for two seats.

"I didn't know if it would be hostile or friendly," she said. "But everyone was wonderful. … They accepted me with open arms and it was always such a great working arrangement."

After that first term, Workman decided it was time for a break from the high court.

"I needed change," Workman said. "I wanted to practice law and I practiced law for a few years."

"I really enjoyed the practice of law," Workman later added. "I missed the court work and missed that I could do things here to have a broad impact on things you care about."

Workman ran again in 2008 for another full-term on the bench.

"I was ready to go back," she said. "And I was lucky enough to get elected again."

Describing her job as "interesting," Workman said she has been lucky to serve with her fellow justices.

"There is a high degree of collegiality and everyone gets along very well," Workman said, echoing the sentiments of several other justices. "We argue strenuously about issues but it's nothing personal. Everyone is friendly and it's a good working environment."

"So, it's an interesting job," Workman continued. "Sometimes, it's very demanding."

She said it has been different from the first time in the state Supreme Court. For one, she said there is more stability because there isn't a high turnover of justices. She also said a trend has been started where justices are playing a more active role in the community.

"When I was here the first go around— and it's the trend of the court now— I established committees to improve child abuse and neglect roles," she said, noting she created the Task Force on Gender Fairness in the Courts and the Task Force on the Future of the Judiciary.

"Each judge here has a special project," Workman said. "(Menis) Ketchum's is to reform jury instructions so they can be clearly understood by jurors. (Brent) Benjamin is big into Access to Justice. Justice (Robin) Davis works in truancy. … Justice (Allen) Loughry will be embarking on a few projects."

Meanwhile, Workman works to improve juvenile rehabilitation services.

"If they do have to be under secured attention, I want to do the best job to figure out why they're doing these things, how they wound up there and address the problem before they become adults and get into the big system," she said.

"Since judges are the ones that sentence them to juvenile and adult facilities, we need to learn as much about them as we can. … I want to see if facilities are doing the best they can to rehabilitate them, get them on the right course of conduct before becoming adults."