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Richard Neely
Born (1941-08-02)August 2, 1941
Died November 8, 2020(2020-11-08) (aged 79)
Education A.B. Economics, Dartmouth College, 1964; LL.B. Yale Law School, 1967
Occupation Lawyer, author, professor, West Virginia Supreme Court justice
Employer Neely & Callaghan
Known for Analysis of the how courts work within the larger political, economic and social system. Pioneer work in domestic law that took into account relative bargaining positions of the parties and the disparities in capacities to litigate.
Term 22 years
Predecessor Oliver D. Kessel
Successor Arthur M. Recht
Board member of Advisory Board, Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) Class Action Litigation Report, 2000–2020
Spouse(s) Carolyn Elmore Neely
Children John Champ Neely, II, M.D.; Charles Whittaker Neely, Esq.
Parent(s) John Champ Neely and Elinore Forlani Neely

Richard Forlani Neely (August 2, 1941 – November 8, 2020) was a justice and chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals from 1973 to 1995. When he took office, he became the youngest judge of a court of last resort in the English-speaking world in the 20th century.

Early life and education

Neely was born in Los Angeles, California. He graduated in 1964 from Dartmouth College, in economics. In 1967 he graduated from Yale Law School. From 1968 to 1969, Neely served as an army artillery captain in Vietnam, where he was assigned to the staff of John Paul Vann and then to the staff of Ambassador Charles S. Whitehouse. Among other duties, Neely supervised the economic development program for a quarter of South Vietnam and then wrote the economic development section of the 1969 American pacification plan. He was awarded the Bronze Star. He was the grandson of Matthew M. Neely, who served as Governor of West Virginia and later as U.S. Senator.

Legal career

Upon returning to civilian life, Neely started his own law practice in Fairmont, West Virginia and in 1970 was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates. Thereafter, he was elected state-wide as a Democrat to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. As a supreme court justice, Neely led reform of the State mental hospitals and juvenile penal schools. Decisions written by him extended greater protections to mental patients, and wiped out the old, brutal state reform school system for both boys and girls, forcing the substitution of real therapeutic models.

Neely is known for his pioneering work in domestic law. Decisions he wrote for the Court, along with his books and articles, created the foundation for the child custody sections of the American Law Institute's Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution. From 1980 until his retirement from the Court in 1995, Neely was among the best-known judges in the United States: he wrote regularly for national publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The Wall Street Journal. Neely's scholarly work usually involved the sociology of courts. His oft-reprinted cover article for the August 1982 Atlantic Monthly, "The Politics of Crime", explained, for example, that criminal courts are more incompetent than they should be because criminal judges are also civil judges and civil defendants, like insurance companies, actively lobby to keep courts as incompetent as possible to make it harder for civil plaintiffs to sue them.

Neely's best-known book, How Courts Govern America was written at the height of judicial activism. Frankly admitting that he was a restrained judicial activist, Neely explained the practical and political limits to courts' powers, making his book an important contribution to arguments for judicial restraint. The book remains in print.

Neely always maintained an active interest in teaching: He was one of the first American professors to teach law in China in 1984 when China opened up; he served as Atherton Lecturer at Harvard; and, for over a decade he was professor of economics at the University of Charleston. On April 15, 1995, Neely retired from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and returned to private practice, starting the firm of Neely & Hunter (now Neely & Callaghan) in Charleston, West Virginia.

Neely died on November 8, 2020 in Charleston of liver cancer, aged 79.

See also

  • List of justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia
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