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Ethics charges filed against Kanawha magistrate Harshbarger

By Kate White, Staff writer

Ethics charges have been filed against a Kanawha County magistrate after he refused to grant the ex-wife of the county’s prosecuting attorney a domestic violence petition against the prosecutor.

Magistrate Ward Harshbarger didn’t give the petition filed by Allison Plants against Mark Plants “a full and fair review,” the state Judicial Investigation Commission wrote in a statement of charges against the magistrate that were made public Tuesday.

Harshbarger and his assistant also talked about Allison Plants’ petition in front of and with people who had nothing to do with her case, according to the charges, which were filed in the state Supreme Court clerk’s office April 11.

Also, state Supreme Court justices deadlocked earlier this month over whether to suspend Harshbarger without pay until the charges against him are resolved.

After Allison Plants found a bruise on her 11-year-old son’s leg she alerted police and applied for a domestic violence protective order. She told police Mark Plants had inflicted too harsh a punishment on the boy. Police investigated and Plants now faces two misdemeanor charges.

Allison Plants appeared before Harshbarger on Feb. 26 and filled out the paperwork required to petition for an emergency domestic violence protective order against Mark Plants. She handed over the proper paperwork to Harshbarger’s assistant ,Melanie Rucker, who immediately took the paperwork to Harshbarger, according to the filing.

Harshbarger says he decided to deny the petition before he realized it was against Mark Plants, the charges state.

“He indicated that he was going to deny it because the alleged abuse was a form of parental correcting,” the charges state. “When he learned that the matter involved Prosecutor Plants, he stated, ‘I’m not going to grant this.’”

The charges also allege Harshbarger gave Allison Plants the wrong information about how to appeal his denial of her petition.

The next day, Feb. 27, Kanawha Family Court Judge Mike Kelly granted her an emergency domestic violence protective order. The charges note that Kelly granted the order having the same information Harshbarger did, but with one additional paragraph of information.

Plants was charged March 18 with violating that order. On March 31, the prosecutor was charged with domestic battery over the same events that gave rise to the protection order.

Harshbarger is also accused of talking about Allison Plants’ case with police officers from Dunbar and Charleston. The officers had no involvement in her case, the charges state.

After Kelly granted Allison Plants’ emergency protection and it became known that State Police were investigating Mark Plants, Harshbarger and Rucker openly discussed the case, according to the Judicial Investigation Commission.

Harshbarger has violated canons of the judicial code of conduct that say judges shall uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary; avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, and perform their duties impartially and diligently, among others, the charges state.

Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury filed a complaint March 13 with the investigation commission alleging Harshbarger had “engaged in serious violations” of the judicial code of conduct.

The charges filed by the commission note that Harshbarger, who has been a Kanawha magistrate since 1981, has been the subject of judicial discipline twice before. In 1984, the Supreme Court censured Harshbarger for neglect of duty after he left his shift early before night court had ended. In 1994, Harshbarger was admonished for going to a polling place where he was not registered to vote while the polls were still open.

Teresa Tarr, the state’s judiciary disciplinary counsel, recommended that Harshbarger be removed from handling all domestic violence petitions until the charges against him are resolved, but Supreme Court justices couldn’t agree on that earlier this month, according to the filing. Justices Robin Davis and Allen Loughry wanted to suspend Harshbarger without pay. Justice Menis Ketchum said the magistrate shouldn’t be punished unless the charges are proven against him. Justice Margaret Workman said that removing Harshbarger from domestic violence cases -- effectively removing him from the night shift rotation at magistrate court -- would reward him for his alleged misconduct.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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