Putnam circuit judge discusses career, life and retirement - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Putnam circuit judge O.C. Spaulding discusses career, life and retirement

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Through his many years as a prosecutor and a circuit judge in Putnam County, one thing has remained constant for Judge O.C. Spaulding — his love for the law.

However, his long-time career has been cut short because of an illness that threatens his life. Spaulding was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, this fall and recently announced his retirement as a judge.

Spaulding, who has served as a judge for 19 years, said although he never pictured himself as a judge, he always has been interested in law.

Before taking his seat at the bench, Spaulding was a lawyer at a private practice. He then served as an assistant Putnam County prosecutor and later served as the county's prosecuting attorney.

"I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer," he said. "You have to be the kind of person who knows how to communicate to get your ideas across and convince someone. That's what it's all about."

To Spaulding, public speaking has been the most enjoyable facet of his career. Spaulding was never the one hiding in the back, fretting a speech in front of his classmates. Instead, one might find him front and center, arguing his point.

"I always enjoyed public speaking and convincing people," he explained. "When I was in junior high school, I won an American Legion award for a speech I gave on liberty."

Unfortunately, Spaulding's diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease has limited his ability to communicate. He was diagnosed with the disease a few months ago but said he didn't plan to resign immediately, hoping an experimental drug would help slow the disease's progression.

"I hoped the progression would slow down but it has not," he said. "It has picked up. … The last two months have been especially hard on my speech, swallowing and breathing."

According to the ALS Association, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. This degeneration of motor neurons eventually leads to death. Spaulding's diagnosis of "bulbar" ALS mainly affects muscles involved in speech, according to the Emory ALS Center.

"I know I'm going to die," he said. "No one has ever survived ALS. There is no cure and really no treatment. The one difference is how it affects the body. Some people die quicker than others but they all die. That's just the way it is."

During an Aug. 26 Monsanto case hearing, Spaulding told attending parties that he would step down from the case because of the diagnosis. He announced his retirement on nearly four months later.

"I was scared," he recalled of the diagnosis. "It scares you. It makes you sick. It affects all your thinking. Then you go through a period where you deny it and say ‘it can't be.' Then you worry but finally, you accept it. That's what I have done. I can't do anything about it. You have to live the best way you can. You just have to say, ‘I have a limited time left' and take advantage of it."

And the way he plans to take advantage of his time is to take a much needed vacation on a cross-country train tour. Since he graduated law school, Spaulding has taken one two-week vacation, he said.

Spaulding's retirement is set to take effect at the end of the year. Although he cannot communicate well enough to be in court, Spaulding still remains hard at work writing opinions.

"If I kept my mouth shut, you wouldn't know anything is wrong," he said. "Physically I feel good, but that's part of the disease.

"If I were given the choice, I would rather work and finish my term," he added. "You either love the law or you don't."

And Spaulding loves the law.

Mentioning a recent judicial hellhole report, which listed the Mountain State as No. 3 in the nation, Spaulding said he just doesn't see it. He said there have been several changes in legislation to help businesses in the past 10 years, including changes in joint and several liability and medical malpractice.

He said he is worried about the impact an intermediate court would have on the judicial climate and small businesses.

"It's good for judges because there will be more of them, and it will be good for lawyers because they have more business," he said. "It's going to be bad for people, regular people, because every small business will have to fight their battles in intermediate courts."

Spaulding also mentioned concerns about having judges appointed instead of being elected because of the fear that judges would favor big businesses instead of the common person.

"The election of judges makes you humble and a better judge," he said.  "You're not a king or a god in the courtroom. You're simply filling a seat for a short period of time."

In his career, Spaulding has had many memorable moments. He recalled an unexpected encounter at a restaurant when he was approached by someone he first had seen on the other side of the law.

"He asked me if I remembered him, and I said I didn't," Spaulding said. "He told me I saved his life and that he was out of control, doing drugs and hurting people, but when he got out, he furthered his education, married and had children. He then thanked me for everything."

Spaulding also recalled his time as a lawyer in the courtroom, feeling the adrenaline pumping when the word "objection" was uttered by the opposing side.

"All day, when you come to the courtroom, you have to be ready for objections," he said. "It's intense. … At the end of the day, you ache, you're tired. But you have to prepare for the next case."

This day-to-day stress is what lead to Spaulding's decision to become a judge. But even this position came with a new set of challenges.

"When you're a judge, you no longer are a party in the game of litigation, you're passive, watching it all happen," he said. "When you're a lawyer, you're making it happen, it's much more aggressive. It's a different mindset. I struggled with that in the beginning, and it took me two or three years before finally accepting that my role has changed."

Although Spaulding has loved his job and loves the law, one thing may trump that love. And that is the love of his wife, Cabell County Circuit Judge Jane Hustead. Spaulding said the two have been an "on-again off-again" couple ever since they graduated law school, but recently decided to tie the knot.

"At times, we both waited on our careers," he recalled. "She wanted to be a prosecutor and ended up being an assistant prosecuting attorney in Cabell County for 31 years. She loved her job, too. So there would be times when I was ready to get married and she wasn't, and she was ready to get married and I wasn't ready"

"Finally, time goes by and you realize you're too old to have children, and if you don't have children, your relationship changes. It becomes much more of the two of you."

Spaulding said his diagnosis also has brought them closer to each other.

"When I got ALS, it brought us much closer and there were new things forming there," he said. "We wanted our relationship to be permanent, Or at least as permanent as it can be."

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