Bunn fits in well with West Virginia Supreme Court | News, Sports, Jobs
Photo of: John McCabe
WHEELING – For Haley Bunn, life is all about starting early and being prepared.
Growing up in the small Wyoming County town of Oceana — population 1,462 — she learned, “You have to be there early, you have to be ready and you have to be prepared for whatever’s ahead, and you have to do whatever it takes to be prepared. ”
This approach has served her well as she graduated with honors from West Virginia University in 2007 and received her law degree from WVU in 2010.
Little did she know that 12 years later she would be the newest judge on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Between stints in private practice at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson (2010-12 and 2019-22), Bunn served as Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, focusing on the state’s opioid epidemic. Gov. Jim Justice called in April when he asked Bunn to accept a Supreme Court nomination.
She agreed and now sits in a court that sees its longest-serving judge (Judge Beth Walker) on the bench for just six years. It’s a position where Bunn hopes to make a name for himself and pave the way for more women in leadership positions.
“It really all comes from a dedication to West Virginia and our way of life and a real thought that this is a wonderful place to live and raise kids and also to have that commitment to public service,” she said when she accepted the governor’s appointment.
Growing up in Oceana was wonderful, Bunn said. After leaving college, she returned to the area to begin her legal career at Steptoe & Johnson in Charleston. She recalls traveling to Wyoming County for a hearing shortly thereafter and realizing how many opioids her community had been demanding.
She felt the need to help.
This prompted her to seek a position in the US Attorney’s Office, working first with US Attorney Booth Goodwin and then with US Attorney Mike Stuart, focusing primarily on the opioid epidemic.
“I’m from what’s not so affectionately called ‘Oxiana,'” she said, recalling the trip home when she realized things weren’t as they should be. “I didn’t come back and go back a lot…it just hit me. This place is under threat. I mean really the way of life was threatened and I thought what can I do to try to protect and preserve that and make (Oceana) a thriving community again?
“So I said to Booth Goodwin, ‘I want to join your staff and fight the opioid epidemic. I want to help you with that as best I can.’ And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that to a certain extent. I just started out as a violent crime and drug prosecutor… and then started working on the healthcare side because it was very clear that the prescription (opioids) problem was what started and spread to everything else, be it heroin or Fentanyl or whatever.”
The Department of Justice at this time increased its efforts to find ways to combat illicit drugs and established an opioid fraud and abuse detection unit. Bunn sought a position in this unit, with her position funded during her last two years of service to prosecute healthcare opioid diversion and fraud. She said she believes her efforts in working with US Attorneys have had an impact on her home community’s support.
The court calls
Bunn settled into day-to-day life after leaving the US Attorney’s Office and returning to Steptoe, where she focused her practice on litigation. She and her husband Joe set about raising their daughters. They attended church in Charleston. A pleasant routine set in.
And then Gov called. Justice in early April, offering her the Supreme Court seat previously held by Justice Evan Jenkins. She met with the governor and accepted his appointment.
Bunn was sworn in at the end of April and has since been working to adjust to the court and her colleagues — Walker, Chief Justice John Hutchinson and Justices Bill Wooton and Tim Armstead — as they work not only to restore the court’s reputation after one turbulent period a few years ago, but also to establish a new Intermediate Circuit Court of Appeals and further expand the state’s family and drug treatment courts.
Bunn said the administrative end of the Supreme Court was the most interesting to learn about.
“One of the things that’s really close to my heart right now is our treatment dishes,” she said. “One part of the job that I don’t think I understood until I actually took the judge’s seat…was the administrative side of the Supreme Court. We have 1,500 associates in West Virginia courts and many different programs that we oversee. One of those programs, and a big part of our budget, is really our treatment dishes. I think a lot of people know about our adult drug treatment court and our juvenile treatment court, but we also have a family treatment court.”
And these treatment courts are bringing her back to what led her to the US Attorney’s Office in 2012 – drugs. Drug treatment courts obviously deal with addiction, but so do almost all cases in family treatment courts. Providing parents with a way to keep their families together can be a powerful motivator to get sober.
“If the kids are gone, if your (parental) rights have ended, what reason do you have to stay sober? … So, I commend our district judges for taking this on and I hope that the program (grows.) We’re seeing a lot of success,” she said. “Going to the final examinations of the treatment court is one of my favorite things about this job. You see the participants reunited with their children. This is part of the process of bringing the family together.
“I really believe that (the drug) problem needs to be addressed in many ways. There is no excuse, even though it is absolutely necessary to fight the drug epidemic and to get and keep our communities on the right track. But you also have to have this treatment aspect, the family aspect, you have to state the why. And I think our family treatment courts do that.”
When it comes to the Supreme Court itself, she sees sunny skies ahead, despite the dark clouds left behind by some former judges’ purchases and actions.
“I can say first hand (the relationship between the judges) has absolutely changed. And not just in dealing with each other,” she said. “We get along, but we are also committed to promoting respect for the court. And I don’t mean politeness when you come into the courtroom; I mean respect in that we are trying to promote an understanding of what the court is doing and an understanding of the role of the court in our democracy.”
These efforts are supported by the establishment of a Learning Center for the Court.
“I think there’s really a mystery as to what’s going on (at the court). Let’s break that down. All five judges are very committed to promoting respect for the court by promoting understanding of the court and the judiciary,” she said.
What the future brings
Bunn is 36, short in stature but big on presence. She has a sharp mind and a sharper mind, which serves her well as justice. She made it clear that she plans to run in the May 2024 election for the seat she now holds.
She also acknowledges that while she is “not your typical judiciary,” it would be wrong to underestimate her.
“I don’t look like the typical Supreme Court Justice. Everyone thinks of an older man with gray hair and a black robe. That’s what you think about, but honestly I think that’s just the beauty of our court. We have so many different perspectives,” she said. “I think that’s going to benefit West Virginia. The result is well-written, well-reasoned opinions. I think we educate each other from our different perspectives, but in a respectful, open-minded way.”
She also sees the meaning her appointment to the court could have for her own daughters and other young girls across West Virginia. She allowed her 7-year-old to invite several friends to her investiture ceremony in May, which she says was “one of my favorite moments of the day.”
“I wanted them to be impressed with the dish and how great it was, but not be scared and not understand what the point is. And so I really enjoyed standing up there in front of these young ladies, all dressed in their Sunday best, and showing them that even if you don’t tick all the traditional boxes, there’s no need to be shy. Just go out and do it. I loved being a part of it.”
She also looks forward to her first full list of hearings starting in October, when attorneys will appear before judges. She thinks she’s “nerdy” in that sense.
“I love watching lawyers do a good job and diligently represent their clients. I love that,” she said. “I still see that on the argument days, which is great. Some of the problems we often encounter are proof questions with the proof rules. And those are some of my favorite subjects.”