Zakaib to retire after decades as Kanawha judge
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Paul Zakaib Jr., a Kanawha County Circuit judge for nearly three decades, will leave the bench next month.
Zakaib, 81, said that after contemplating it for about a year, he will retire Aug. 31. He gave notice to the West Virginia Supreme Court on Monday.
“I feel like I want to spend some time with my grandkids. I have a special-needs grandchild I love to be with,” he said.
Zakaib was first appointed circuit judge in 1986, to replace the retiring Robert K. Smith. He lost a bid for re-election, but was reappointed when Kanawha Circuit Judge Margaret Workman joined the state Supreme Court.
“He’s tired,” his longtime secretary, Melody Shannon, said. “It’s time.”
Zakaib, a graduate of Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston) and the West Virginia University College of Law, served four terms in the House of Delegates and was active in Republican politics before he became a judge.
“I have the utmost respect for him as a judge. I think his competency is above and beyond, as well as his integrity and ethics,” said Kanawha Circuit Chief Judge Charlie King, who has served on the bench with Zakaib for about 26 years.
“The people of Kanawha County are going to miss him as a circuit judge, they really are … I’ll miss him, I know that. He has a lot of institutional knowledge — you can’t replace it. He will be missed,” King said.
Tod Kaufman became a Kanawha Circuit judge the same year as King, in 1988, and said Zakaib’s decisions are respected.
“Paul’s record was one of consistency, longevity and commitment,” Kaufman said. “His tenure on the bench will be remembered respectfully for years to come.”
Kanawha Circuit Judges Duke Bloom and Jim Stucky reiterated that Zakaib’s knowledge will be hard to replace.
“Judge Zakaib served the county with distinction, without controversy, always giving deference with the rule of law,” Bloom said. “The citizens of Kanawha County are much better for his service.”
“He’ll certainly be missed. His experience and knowledge will certainly be hard to replace,” Stucky said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will appoint Zakaib’s replacement after the state Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission interviews applicants and makes recommendations.
“Judge Zakaib is one of the finest judges Kanawha County has seen and may ever see,” said Kanawha Commission President Kent Carper, an attorney and member of the judicial advisory commission.
About six years ago, Zakaib led the charge for redoing the county’s mental hygiene office.
“He gave them a safe and functional area so they could be treated humanely and decently,” Carper said. “We couldn’t get him to do a ribbon-cutting; he just got it done and moved on to something else. We wanted to have a big deal about it, and he wouldn’t do it — that’s not him.”
In 2011, Zakaib ruled that the Kanawha County Board of Education was no longer required by law to devote part of its budget to help fund the county’s public library.
Zakaib declared null and void a funding stream — set by a 1957 special act of the Legislature — that required the Kanawha school board to provide about one-third of the library’s annual budget. He ruled that the special act created a “lack of uniformity in the public education financing scheme as there is unequal treatment of the Kanawha Board as compared to  other county boards of education.”
The West Virginia Supreme Court affirmed Zakaib last year in a 4-1 ruling. Justice Brent Benjamin dissented.
The Supreme Court this year agreed with Zakaib’s decision to reverse the state Consolidated Public Retirement Board’s definition for what constitutes military service. It will cost the state roughly $23 million a year to comply with the ruling, according to a report released earlier this month.
Zakaib found that the board had wrongly withheld credit for service during periods of armed conflict, even if those periods were not specially listed by the Legislature.
In another high-profile case over which Zakaib presided, Supreme Court justices reduced a $90 million verdict against a Charleston nursing home to about $32 million.
After a trial that lasted nearly two weeks in front of Zakaib in 2011, jurors found that Heartland of Charleston failed to feed and care for Dorothy Douglas, who stayed at the home for about three weeks. Jurors awarded Douglas’ son and her estate $11.5 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages.
Attorneys for the nursing home argued that Zakaib should have applied the state’s medical malpractice caps, which prevent plaintiffs alleging medical malpractice from recovering more than $500,000 in noneconomic damages.
Zakaib ruled that a small portion of the verdict should be subject to the medical malpractice cap, and reduced the jury’s $91.5 million award to about $90.5 million.
In a 4-1 ruling, Supreme Court justices reduced both the compensatory and punitive damages to Douglas’ estate, but said the punitive damages should not be restricted by the cap on medical malpractice damages.
Justices wrote that Zakaib was right to find that the large punitive damages award was necessary to punish the nursing home but criticized the verdict form Zakaib approved for jurors to use. Justice Benjamin wrote, “The confused verdict form is woefully inadequate to serve as a proper legal basis for this Court to sustain the extraordinary damages awarded herein.”
Zakaib recalled a 1989 ruling that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in which he upheld the constitutionality of a statute suspending driver’s licenses of school dropouts under the age of 18.
“I took them as they came,” Zakaib said about the cases he heard.
After graduating from law school in 1958, Zakaib began a series of jobs at the Statehouse, including stops at the Tax Commission, the Department of Employment Security, the Economic Development Agency and the Department of Commerce.
He left Morris Harvey for two years to serve in the Army, fighting in Korea.
Zakaib’s father grew up in Damascus, Syria, and moved to the U.S. at age 20. Paul Zakaib Sr. ran Capitol Variety Shop on Washington Street East for about 20 years. While attending college in Charleston, Zakaib lived with his parents behind the store and sold shoes in Capitol Street stores and hawked doughnuts door-to-door all over the county.
Zakaib said Tuesday he prided himself on treating lawyers with respect and trying to make them feel comfortable in his courtroom.
“I don’t want them to feel intimidated because they’re in the courtroom,” he said. “I remember when I was practicing law, at the time there were several judges who growled at you … it makes you feel bad, you feel intimidated. I tried not to make lawyers feel that way. I don’t want them to feel intimidated by a judge.”
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1723 or follow @KateLWhite on Twitter.