CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Retiring state Supreme Court Justice Thomas McHugh's career on the court ends not far from where it began.
McHugh, a 76-year-old Democrat, thought about becoming a lawyer after a trip to the state Capitol in high school.
He graduated from West Virginia University, took an Army commission and expected to make a career there, but then decided against it and went back to law school. A few years after graduation, he clerked at the Supreme Court for Justice Harlan Calhoun.
The office McHugh is leaving is the same office Calhoun used to occupy.
In the small legal world, one of McHugh's former clerks when he was a Kanawha circuit court judge is Justice Margaret Workman and one of her clerks on the high court, Allen Loughry, will now takeover McHugh's old office.
McHugh, whose term on the court ends with the New Year, provided a glimpse of what it is like to be on the five-member court during a two-hour interview in his office earlier this month.
First, even though justices have won a statewide election, most people do not know who they are or what they do.
McHugh has been on the court for two separate stints. He first ran and won a 12-year term in 1980 and then won another 12-year term in 1992, but retired midway through in 1997 after serving several times as the court's chief justice. When he retired, Justice Joseph Albright remarked, "Chief Justice McHugh, you will always be my Chief Justice."
His close friend Justice Robin Davis also wrote a 300-page appreciation of his career in a special edition of the West Virginia Law Review.
But he came back to the court 2008 after Albright fell ill and eventually died. McHugh was appointed and then ran for reelection to fill the rest of Albright's term, which is now ending.
But after two decades on the court, do people walking down the street know McHugh? Not really.
"Who knows what a Supreme Court does?" McHugh said. "Newspapers; the governor - when the governor is stopped on doing something; the Legislature - when an act is overturned; but most people have no idea what a Supreme Court justice does."
McHugh said it's good to never get "too high and mighty" because a justice who goes on the street and says, 'Do you know who I am?' might have the following exchange:
"'No, I have no idea who you are.' "
"'Well, you know, I'm a Supreme Court justice."'
"'Well, that's good, but what do you do? Do you take care of disability claims?' "
McHugh said that's really what it's like.
"And it's funny because you tend think, 'Well, everybody is going to listen to me, by gosh, I'm going to put out this great order here and I'm going to go look and see what everyone says about it.' Well, most people don't understand what that is, unless they are litigant in it, and most aren't."
Second, being on the court can be an isolating experience.
The people that do know what it means to be justice - namely friends who are lawyers - are afraid to come back and visit the justices in their Capitol offices.
"Your circle of friend tends to be tighter," McHugh said. "People just don't want to deal with it. It's easier to just, 'I don't want to touch it,' and they stay away from you."
Because of that, it's hard to know what other lawyers think of the court's work.
About the only time a lawyer will level with a justice is if the lawyer happens to have had a drink.
"You go to a social function, nobody is ever going to come up and tell you, 'Hey . . . you know, I thought that opinion was rotten' - unless a person is drunk or something,' " McHugh said.
McHugh said he never knew if Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is "ticked off" at the court over a January 2011 ruling. The court said the state needed to hold an election for governor a year earlier than Tomblin - then acting as un-elected governor - had wanted.
"You determine whether the governor is going to get another term or not, you never know whether they're still ticked off at you on that - you never know those things," McHugh said.
There's also the cases the court deals with. The Supreme Court does not do trials, so it mostly reviews documents or legal principals and process.