It was a bittersweet moment for members of the legal community in Monongalia County who gathered Tuesday evening to celebrate the retirement of Judge Phillip D. Gaujot.
“It has been my personal privilege to have practiced in front of Judge Gaujot over the years and to have known him before that as a lawyer as well,” local attorney Paul Cranston said to the crowd who gathered for a party at Kegler’s to show their appreciation of the judge. “I can tell you on behalf of the Mon County Bar – Judge Gaujot, you will be missed when you retire at the end of this year and we all wish you the best of luck.”
Gaujot, who announced earlier this year that he will be retiring on Dec. 31, has been dedicated to his service as a judge of the Circuit Court of Monongalia County for more than 13 years.
During his decades-long career in law, Gaujot has racked up a list of accomplishments that few, if any, could currently claim. Cranston highlighted just a few of those accomplishments at the retirement party.
A life-long resident of West Virginia, Gaujot received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1968 from West Virginia University and his law degree from WVU College of Law in 1971.
After law school, Gaujot began working as an assistant attorney general for the state of West Virginia where he successfully argued a civil case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Early in his career, Gaujot specialized as a litigator and became involved with a civil case against the Pittston Coal Company for their negligence that ultimately caused the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster in Logan County which caused 125 deaths and almost 20 miles of property damage in the area.
“With the assistance of a Washington D.C. law firm, Gaujot represented over 1,400 children for the mental damages and loss of community they suffered from this disaster,” Cranston told the crowd.
Before his appointment as a judge, Gaujot represented cases in the areas of personal injury, product liability, domestic relations, contracts, wills and estate, higher education, criminal law, corporate law, and other general areas of law.
Throughout his career, Gaujot practiced and litigated cases in various state and federal courts throughout West Virginia and the United States including the U.S. Supreme Court and other various courts in West Virginia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Additionally, Gaujot has served as general council for the cities of Nitro and Shinnston and was council for the sheriff of Kanawha County. He has also served as a board member to both WVU Alumni Association and the Mon General Hospital Foundation.
In 2009, Gaujot was appointed as a Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge by then-governor Joe Manchin, after the legislature added a third judge to the circuit. He was then elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.
“I’ve been very fortunate to serve as judge of this county and serve the people of this county,” Gaujot said. “It’s hard to believe that this day is finally coming. I’m retiring with mixed emotions, but I am looking forward to a new chapter in my life and actually new adventures – and I’m looking forward to a little bit of rest.
“During this time I have felt some fear about the future and what will come next,” he told the crowd. “It’s a little bit daunting and scary to be honest with you.”
Gaujot said he put a lot of thought into retirement and is looking forward to more leisure and “doing all the things I thought I would do someday.”
The feeling, he said, was bittersweet because he also feels sadness about leaving behind what has been such an important part of his life.
“I’ve been told that what I am about to enter into is a permanent weekend, a never-ending vacation,” he said, joking that his wife, Carol, “will now get twice the husband, but only half the pay.”
“I just hope that Carol doesn’t enter the portal,” he said in a hilarious reference to the NCAA transfer portal. “You know she might enter the portal to see if something else is out there.”
Gaujot reflected on his childhood growing up in Pocahontas County, saying “I had no idea about what kind of life I would lead during that time. I didn’t think I could afford college and I never dreamed of being a lawyer, let alone a judge.”
In his nearly eight decades of life, Gaujot said that there are two decades that have impacted his life the most – the 1960’s and 2009 to the present.
After graduating high school in 1962, he said he worked a year for the CIA during the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis “which was extremely interesting to me,” he said. “And I was there for the showdown we had with Russia.”
He started college in 1963 and met his wife, Carol, who he referred to as his “girlfriend, sweetheart, and soulmate” in 1965, later marrying her in 1967. He finished the decade with a bachelor’s degree and a law degree and welcomed his first son Todd who serves as a Magistrate Court judge in Mon County.
“So you can see everything that happened in that 10-year span was so meaningful to me,” Gaujot said. “That’s why I think that decade, of the almost 8 decades I’ve been alive, was so important to me.”
Gaujot said the past decade has also served as an important bookend for his life and career.
“First, I appreciate and thank then-governor Manchin for my appointment as judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit,” he said. “I must say it has been a privilege to serve in the position of judge for 13 years. I thank the citizens of this county who twice went to the polls and voted for me to serve as judge of this wonderful county.”
The judge concluded his speech with a series of thank yous including staff members and others that have supported him over the years.
“I want to give special thanks to the Monongalia County Bar, especially for the respect that you have shown me throughout my tenure. I know that my rulings didn’t always go your way, but I always say ‘be mad at me for ruling against you, just don’t stay mad at me,’” he said.
“The respect that you have given me is noticeable and it registers in the heart and I hope that my legacy is that I was a fair judge – that is so important to me.”
Speaking with those who came to show their support of the judge, his fairness will only be a part of the legacy he will be leaving.
“I’ve known him to be an honest and fair, very forward thinking judge on the circuit court and it’s been a pleasure to work with him,” said former Monongalia County Sheriff Al Kisner. “He is a great guy, very level headed. I think he was a very fair judge and I think a lot of people that even went before him would say the same thing. I hate to see him go, but we all face that time when retirement is on the board.”
Law Clerk Brian McAllister, who presented a plaque to the retiring judge, said “It is a privilege beyond words to serve the people of the state of West Virginia, but the only greater privilege is to serve the people of the state of West Virginia with this man.”
Gaujot’s longest serving employee and court reporter, Julie Blosser, was unable to attend the event, but sent a message for the man whose every word she has repeated for 13 years.
“You have served this community with fairness, kindness, compassion – and that’s something of which you should be very proud. I hope you realize how many lives you have impacted in a positive way during your tenure as a judge – and one of those lives is mine,” Blosser wrote.
“I also want to make sure that you know how much of an impact you had on the lives of the people who appeared before you. You treated every case on an individual basis, you listened to those who needed to be heard and you had empathy for those who had probably never had someone listen to them before,” she said. “I’ve heard in your voice and in your words how much of yourself you’ve given to the people of the state of West Virginia serving as a judge and it has been my honor to be by your side for the last 13 years.”
Newly elected Circuit Court Clerk Donna Hidock said she has also worked with Gaujot since his appointment and “will miss him horribly.”
“It’s a new chapter, it’s going to be a change,” Hidock said. “I know that who replaces him – and I say replace, I don’t think anybody can really replace him – but I am very confident and we will work with whoever it is. It is just going to be a big transition, but we will get there.”
Hidock, who helped organize the retirement party for Gaujot, said “it meant everything” to her that they were able to honor the judge this way.
“He is a great man with a great family,” she said.
Gaujot told the Dominion Post that he doesn’t have any immediate plans after his retirement at the end of the year, but plans to do some of the things he loves like skiing, hunting, and fishing, as well as spending more time with his family and grandchildren.
The judge said he has no regrets about his chosen profession and will encourage those interested in law to pursue it.
“I tell young people, if you’re contemplating a profession, think about the law because it is so meaningful,” he said. “The response – the positive response that you can get from the law is immediate.”
As he inches closer to his final day in court, the judge said he was feeling grateful.
“You know, the respect that I received from everyone in the courtroom, you know, as a judge you want that respect and you hope you give that respect – it’s a two way street. And I tried to do that and I got it in return,” he said. “It’s been an absolute privilege to serve as judge. What a wonderful way to finish my career in the law.”