Richard Neely, former Supreme Court justice, dies of cancer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Richard Neely, the outspoken former member of the West Virginia State Supreme Court, died Sunday. He was 79.

Richard Neely

Neely had cancer and died at his Charleston home surrounded by family and friends, according to Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.

“He was diagnosed with liver cancer a month ago and he went quickly,” Jones, a longtime friend, said Monday on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Neely, the grandson of former West Virginia governor and U.S. Senator Matthew Neely, grew up in Marion County, graduated from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School and served as an artillery captain in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service.

A young Justice Richard Neely

Neely began practicing law in Fairmont after Vietnam. He then ran and won a seat in the state legislature in 1970. He was elected as a Democrat to the state Supreme Court in 1973. He retired from the Court in 1995. He served several years as chief justice. Neely ran again for the Court earlier this year but lost to Chief Justice Tim Armstead.

“Truthfully, he was the most loyal person I ever met in my whole life. He was a wonderful person and spoke the truth as he knew it,” Jones said.

Mike Callaghan, Neely’s law partner, said they broke the mold with Neely.

“I think he’ll most be remembered for the intellect he brought to West Virginia,” Callaghan said on “Talkline.” “I think his long-lasting legacy will be, people will say, he’s probably one of the smartest individuals to ever be in West Virginia and dedicate those skills to improve our state.”

Callaghan said Neely’s body did not respond well to the treatment he received for liver cancer, causing his sickness to advance quickly.

Danny Jones

“Liver cancer, if it turns on you, your liver turns against you it just puts those bad things in your body. This one came really quick,” Callaghan said.

U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito noted, like others, Neely’s abilities.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. (File)

“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. I know Charlie and I will miss seeing Richard and Carolyn on their daily walks around Charleston. What a loss,” Capito said a statement released by her office.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin also issued a statement:

“Gayle and I send our heartfelt condolences to Justice Richard Neely’s wife Carolyn, his sons John and Whittaker, and their entire family. Richard has been a close family friend since his days as a young lawyer in Fairmont after returning from serving in Vietnam. Richard continued to give back to his community, serving in the House of Delegates and later becoming a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice, serving West Virginians until 1995. This is a sad day for all West Virginians, and our thoughts and prayers are with Richard’s family and loved ones who are mourning this loss.”

A biography of Neely’s career posted at said his best known book was How Courts Govern America.

“Frankly admitting that he was a restrained judicial activist, Neely explained the practical and political limits to courts’ powers, making his book an important contribution to arguments for judicial restraint. The book remains in print,” the posting said.

When Neely announced his last run for the Court in Oct. 2019 he said he was running because the court system was in total and complete disaster following the investigation of spending at the Supreme Court that resulted in impeachment votes.

In 1987 during his time on the state Supreme Court, a complaint was filed against Neely for allegedly violating the Judicial Code of Ethics. The complaint alleged that Justice Neely required his staff to perform personal services, including babysitting, as a condition of employment, and that he required his staff to be available on an around-the-clock basis.

Mike Callaghan

Neely said last fall he didn’t believe that would affect the voters.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, voters are going to listen to what I tell them is wrong with the court system.”

Callaghan said he tried to talk Neely out of the run earlier this year but it didn’t work.

“I couldn’t talk him out of it. He honestly believed that his experience he had could improve some of the problems he had in the past. To him, I think, he thought it was a calling,” Callaghan said.

Jones said Neely’s outspokeness was one of his strengths.

“If a person wears the truth and you get yourself in trouble every once in a while–you never have to worry about people like that because they are always going to let you know how they feel,” Jones said.

Neely is survived by his wife and sons. Arrangements are incomplete.

Gov. Jim Justice said flags would be lowered to half-staff later in the week.

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