Chief Justice Warren McGraw of the 27th Judicial Circuit quietly ended his legal career on May 24, in two paragraphs that he penned to Gov. Jim Justice.
“It is with great regret and sadness that, after 55 years of service to my fellow citizens of Wyoming County and the State of West Virginia, I must retire as Circuit Court Judge of the 27th Judicial District,” wrote McGraw, who has served on Wyoming Circuit Court since 2008. “As a result of my physical impairments due to Parkinson’s Disease, it has become too difficult to fulfill the duties of Judge in this great state of West Virginia.
“My retirement will be effective June 21, 2021; this is the day we will celebrate West Virginia’s 158th Birthday,” McGraw, 82, continued. “God bless the State of West Virginia and its people.”
Caught in McGraw’s modest dispatch was the last breath of the West Virginia coal miner, the birth cry of civil rights in the American Deep South and the echo of the laborer’s rights in state courtrooms and the Legislature, brought, largely, by one Wyoming County man’s Christian faith and intellectual acumen.
He is known as the “coal miner’s friend” and as a staunch supporter of the American laborer. He was the driving force behind the passage of a bill giving compensation to Black Lung patients and was an early enforcer of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“That’s what I was educated to do, was to be a representative of people and reflect on their needs,” McGraw said Friday. “And that’s what I’ve done for my whole life, and I’m grateful that people gave me an opportunity to serve.”
McGraw, a lifelong Democrat, grew up in Low Gap and Pineville, both in Wyoming County. He was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1968. In 1972, he was elected to the Senate and served as the 44th president of the Senate in 1980. Both parties in Charleston unanimously re-elected him as Senate president in 1982.
In 1998, McGraw was elected to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia and was elected chief justice of the Court of Appeals in 2001.
He also served on the Wyoming Board of Education and was elected Wyoming prosecuting attorney in 1996.
“I believe I’ve been on every road in West Virginia,” he said of his political campaigning. “I traveled them late at night to get to the next stop.”
McGraw said he is coping with the symptoms of Parkinson’s, a neurological disorder that results in joint stiffness, difficulty with balance and slow movement.
“It affects a lot of people, apparently,” he said, noting there is no cure. “We’re just kind of trudging along, particularly if you’re beginning to get old.”
McGraw, who celebrated his 82nd birthday earlier this month, and his wife, Peggy, have three adult children: Randolph McGraw, 13th Family Circuit Court Judge Suzanne McGraw and Dr. Rebecca McGraw.
“Born and raised” a United Methodist, McGraw said both of his parents emphasized public service and education when he and his brother, former State Attorney General and former State Supreme Court Justice Darrell McGraw, were growing up in the coalfields. Both parents had graduated from Berea College in Kentucky, a private Christian liberal arts work college that was the first to be co-educational and racially integrated. McGraw said Berea College’s emphasis on public service and educating those who could not otherwise afford to attend college had influenced his own upbringing and the way he would, subsequently, serve the state.
“Berea College can take credit for much of the progress that has been made in West Virginia the past few years,” he said. “They have sought to educate the public. They have sought to educate children who, otherwise, wouldn’t have had an opportunity.
“They create a milieu of service,” he said, adding that he was “born and bred to service” because of that.
“That’s the way we were raised, to respect people who sought to be educated and were really unable to get it, except by a helping hand,” McGraw said.
“My and my brother’s view of the world supports education, and that’s the reason that much of what I have been privileged to do had my support and my family’s support.”
After graduating from Morris Harvey College in Charleston, McGraw earned a law degree in 1964 at Wake Forest Law School in North Carolina.
“The schools I went to were church-affiliated,” he noted, pointing out that both schools had ties to Christian denominations. “Most of my education was based on church instruction.”
McGraw celebrated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which sought to extend equal legal protections to Black Americans.
“Lots of young people, like myself, became committed to seeing the civil rights law passed and providing protections and security for the people that were disenfranchised, as a result of our country’s prior treatment of them,” he said. “My own conviction was that it was the right thing to do.
“It was too late in coming.”
After graduating from law school shortly after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, he married his high school sweetheart, Peggy, and went to work for the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that civil rights violations in the eastern United States were being prosecuted. Much of his work was in the Deep South.
“I was reacting to reports of violations of the law and Civil Rights Act, which was new, at the time.
“In fact, everything about it was new, and everything we did was, mostly, a first-time,” he recounted.
“So we traveled a lot, and we frequently referred cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).”
In the coalfields back home, another human rights issue was brewing. Thousands of the state’s coal miners were living with and dying of coal worker’s pneumoconiosis or Black Lung, caused by inhaling coal dust at work. Dr. I.E. Buff, a Charleston heart specialist, was on a crusade against coal operators for doing little to control coal dust. By 1968, Buff told Gov. Hulett Smith, only four miners in the state had ever received compensation for getting Black Lung.
McGraw returned to West Virginia from his civil rights work in Washington, D.C., in time to run for the House of Delegates.
He was elected in 1968, largely by support of laborers.
“The issue of Black Lung and I met, at the same time, in the West Virginia Legislature at Charleston,” McGraw said. “Of course, I came from a county that was a worker’s county.
“About the only industry we had was coal mining, and I felt like the coal miners had a legitimate claim to be compensated when they got ill or disabled from breathing coal dust.”
McGraw led the charge on a state level that resulted in miners receiving compensation for Black Lung. He said that when the law was passed, the gallery was filled to capacity, mostly by miners and their families.
“It was just one incredible time. The people from all over the state were there,” McGraw said.
“Nothing beats the right of the people to choose their leadership and choose the issues on which they will let their society go forward.”
The law would become a defining moment of McGraw’s political career, sealing him as a friend to miners and other workers.
“As a result of that, I think the coal miners were very kind to me throughout my career, and I tried to react favorably, in most cases, to their needs, with respect to workers’ compensation, particularly to get the pneumoconiosis law.”
As a state senator, he was a representative at the Democratic Convention before President Jimmy Carter was elected. He recalled meeting Carter, prior to the 1976 election.
“I had been standing, talking to this gentleman for some time,” he said. “(I’m thinking) He sounds a lot like me. He sounds like he might be a country guy.”
While McGraw chatted with the stranger from Plains, Ga., another man walked over and asked McGraw if he had “met the governor.”
“I don’t believe I have,” McGraw replied. “Well, governor of what?”
“This is the governor of Georgia,” the man told McGraw, indicating the “country guy,” who was Carter. “He’s going to be the next president.”
McGraw admitted that he was skeptical, but told Carter, “I’m going to vote for you.”
“I’ll invite you to the White House,” Carter replied, according to McGraw.
“And he did,” said McGraw.
After West Virginia’s passage of the Black Lung legislation, workers’ compensation for coal miners had become a national concern. Shortly after taking office, President Carter signed into law the Black Lung Benefits Reform Act of 1977. As promised, he asked McGraw to come to the White House.
McGraw was present for the signing.
“And there’s a picture, now hanging in my office, with me and a number of U.S. senators and Jimmy Carter, signing the legislative portion of the federal Black Lung Act, which, without the leadership of Jimmy Carter, there wouldn’t be in my opinion a federal coal worker’s pneumoconiosis law.”
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts on Friday night called from Alabama, where he had been in jail overnight for protesting in favor of miners’ rights. He said he has known McGraw for 45 or 50 years.
Roberts had just returned from serving in the Vietnam conflict when he first heard of McGraw, he said. He was attending junior college and, in 1971, began working in the mines. McGraw was addressing the Black Lung law in Charleston during that era.
In 1977, Roberts was elected vice president of UMWA District #17 in Charleston and became close friends with McGraw, he said.
“I’d considered him a good friend of labor well before, and I think the record shows that, too,” Roberts added. “When you know a family or someone that’s been in office, being an advocate for working class people for so long as Warren has been, it’s almost like somebody in your family is retiring.
“It’s also a feeling of, ‘Gosh, we’ll never be able to replace Warren and his advocacy for working class people.’
“It’s just kind of like a football team that loses a star running back or wide receiver. Somebody will replace them, but it’s not going to be the same, because those are some really big shoes to fill,” he said.
“I fear somebody may step into that position and not be an advocate for workers. We have plenty of people advocating for corporations in West Virginia. We need more people advocating for workers,” Roberts said.
“As a judge, he wasn’t making a decision only for workers. He was making fair decisions. But when it came to doing the right thing, he was always on the side of the workers.”
McGraw also brought another benefit to the coal fields, when he led the way for passage of the coal severance tax, Sen. David “Bugs” Stover recalled Friday.
Stover and Roberts both credit McGraw with passage of the coal severance tax in 1987, which placed a 2.5 percent gross value tax rate on coal produced from the mining and processing of waste.
“Down here in the coalfields, we were finally getting a little something to help do things,” said Stover. “He pulled that off. He definitely did.
“He maneuvered that thing with the skills, the knowledge of the rules and things in the Senate to get a community college in Wyoming County,” he added. “And here’s the thing. At the height of his power in the judiciary, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, this man never forgot what it was like to be poor.
“He ran the legislative branch and then became chief justice, so he ran the judicial branch.”
In 1984, McGraw unsuccessfully ran for governor, challenging then-Speaker of the House Clyde M. See, State Attorney General Chauncey Browning, and State Highway Commissioner Dusty Rhodes in the Democratic primary. McGraw edged out Browning for second place but lost the primary to See.
Stover said McGraw would have most likely won, in any other election year.
Stover added that McGraw never lost his connection with the southern West Virginia coal miner.
“He never forgot what it was like to be raised poor, in the coalfields,” Stover said. “That was probably his greatest legacy.”
McGraw’s daughter Dr. Rebecca McGraw said her father once nearly walked from a Senate hearing in order to stand with coal miners.
“One day, when the rotunda between the House and Senate chambers teemed solidly with coal miners, when they started filling the Senate gallery, the Senate officers locked the doors to the Chambers,” Dr. McGraw said. “Daddy stood at the back row of the Senate floor and said, ‘If my friends are not permitted in the gallery, then I want you to open the doors and let me out.
“‘I want to be with my friends.'”
She said cheers and applause arose from what few miners had made it in, before the lockdown.
McGraw said that, along with Black Lung legislation, he feels a sense of accomplishment for constructing a bridge across the Guyandotte River and appropriating funds for the Southern West Virginia Community College in Wyoming County, as president of the Senate.
In 1998, he was elected to the State Supreme Court. He served until 2004, when he was defeated by Republican Brent Benjamin. Massey CEO Don Blankenship orchestrated and funded a controversial campaign strategy to have Benjamin elected, all in an effort to defeat McGraw.
In 2018, Blankenship told The Register-Herald that he had funded the campaign largely because of McGraw’s pattern of awarding workers’ compensation claims.
When asked about the 2004 election on Friday, McGraw said, “I don’t have much to say about it. It’s just like any other political campaign. The election is over. We move on to the next issue.”
The biggest issue on the Court, he said, is how health care law could be moved to provide better care to human beings.
One of McGraw’s comments summarized his motivation for serving on the bench, according to his daughter Dr. McGraw.
“When he was on the court, he said, ‘Without protection for the least of us, there’s no protection for most of us,'” she recalled. “That’s just him, and I’ve always remembered that.”
McGraw said the right of people to live in peace is core to being American.
“Our entire society has religious implications, and we have a civilization that’s based on Christian principles and Christian ethics,” said McGraw. “What more needs to be said, to the right of the people to live in peace and harmony, to be observed?
“That’s the way we Americans and, hopefully, many of the other people of the earth, too, but it’s the culture we live in that teaches, particularly the American culture, teaches us to be observant and kind and friendly and honorable in our dealings with everybody.”
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