Five days a week for 26 years, Charleston lawyer Tim DiPiero walked into work where he’d see his friend and colleague Sean McGinley, whom he remembered as a gifted attorney with “a keen sense of right and wrong and seeking justice.”
An Interstate 79 crash Thursday killed McGinley near the Frametown exit in Braxton County. He was returning from a hearing in Morgantown. He was 55.
McGinley served as counsel to The Charleston Gazette and, later, the Gazette-Mail during a sparkling legal career spanning 30 years. He was a partner at DiPiero Simmons McGinley & Bastress PLLC, in Charleston.
“Sean was a brilliant lawyer,” DiPiero said. “Just amazingly talented. ... He would always improve any draft of writing I did. He could always make it better. He was incredible at research and writing, and just had a way with words.
“What’s more important than all that is that he loved his family and was a great family man.”
McGinley obtained his law degree from Keble College at Oxford University in 1990. He joined DiTrapano & Jackson in 1995 after serving as a law clerk for the West Virginia Supreme Court and in U.S. District Court. DiTrapano & Jackson later resulted in the current iteration of McGinley’s law office.
His death shook the legal community.
Kent George, an attorney since 1987 at Robinson & McElwee PLLC down the street from McGinley’s office, said the two often worked together, whether on the same or different sides. George called him a “consummate professional.”
“Even if you were against him,” George said, “the law would find its appropriate path because both sides were working toward the same goal.”
U.S. Southern District Judge Frank W. Volk echoed George.
“Sean had the privilege of standing at the elbows of some of the finest legal minds our State has ever produced,” Volk wrote in a statement. “And I think each one of them — foremost our common mentor Judge Charles H. Haden II — would unhesitatingly say Sean was one of the finest legal minds our State has ever produced.”
Volk and McGinley’s paths crossed countless times, starting in high school. They later served as law clerks for Haden.
“I watched many times as Sean, during his days as a law clerk, whittled down with ease a mountain of confusing documents and legal issues equivalent to a dozen Rubik’s cubes,” Volk said. “That is the best gift a law clerk can deliver to his or her judge and our justice system. It, frankly, took many of us in the profession decades to learn what came naturally to Sean almost immediately. And he managed to do all this while still putting a premium on family and community service.”
McGinley became a highly respected personal-injury lawyer. He also worked with many media companies on cases regarding the First Amendment and other issues.
In 2010, he filed a lawsuit on The Charleston Gazette’s behalf after the West Virginia State Police denied the newspaper’s request for documents on use of force, internal investigations and disciplinary records regarding troopers.
Virginian-Pilot investigative reporter Gary Harki was working the story for the Gazette at the time. He remembered telling former executive editor Rob Byers the paper needed legal help to advance the story. He recalled McGinley’s early confidence that the State Police legally would be required to provide more information.
“You can press the government to give you information,” Harki said, “but there does come a time when you have done all you can do as a reporter, and the only way we’re going to get some of this information is if we have lawyers like Sean, who are willing to go to bat for us.”
McGinley’s father, Pat, a West Virginia University law professor, is widely regarded as one of the state’s leading open-government lawyers. The father and son combination along with Pat McGinley’s wife, Suzanne Weise, made a formidable trio.
“[T]hey’re sort of the pillars of press freedom of West Virginia, as far as I’m concerned,” Harki said, “certainly in terms of lawyers getting things done.”
McGinley won the State Police case. That victory allowed the Charleston Gazette-Mail to publish a series by former reporter Jake Zuckerman that revealed, among other things, State Police conducted more than 100 internal probes of use of force yet never took action against some of the force’s statistically most aggressive troopers.
McGinley and two other attorneys also won a federal appeals court case — on behalf of the Gazette, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, National Public Radio and Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting — to lift a federal judge’s gag order in the criminal trial of former Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship. The order had cut off reporters’ access to court records and interviews .
McGinley didn’t just aid the paper on big cases, but on more common issues, like possible legal ramifications and FOIA requests.
“Sean was always the guy to ask,” said Greg Moore, former executive editor of the Gazette-Mail and co-founder of Mountain State Spotlight, along with former Gazette-Mail reporters Ken Ward Jr. and Eric Eyre.
“He always had time for the Gazette and the Gazette-Mail, because he thought what we were doing was important,” Moore said. “And we relied on him a great deal through the years and, you know, the number of — I wouldn’t want to count the number of things we were able to do for our readers because we had Sean giving us advice and giving us backup, often at a severely discounted rate.
“It’s comforting for a newsroom to have someone like that in your corner and, more and more, it’s essential for local newsrooms to have someone like that in your corner, so this is a real loss. I mean, other than the obvious loss to his family and friends, it’s a real loss for journalism in West Virginia.”
The father of two sons, McGinley was an active member in the community. A baseball fan, he often volunteered his time as a Little League coach.
Bill Mehle, the head baseball coach at Charleston Catholic High School, said he will miss seeing McGinley stationed “in the front row at our games.” One of McGinley’s two sons, Liam, is a senior outfielder who graduated last week. His brother Colin also is in high school.
“I have heard testimonies from his father’s good friends about what a great dad Sean has been to his sons,” Mehle wrote in an email. “Character is formed, first and foremost, in the home. So, I know that Sean, and Liam’s mom, Ana, have done a great job raising two fine young men, which is the finest living testimony a parent can have.”
Said George: “I can’t imagine anyone saying anything bad about Sean; he’s just too nice of a guy.
“Sometimes, people think that you can’t be a good lawyer if you’re a nice guy. Sean proved that wasn’t true.”
Funeral arrangements still were pending at deadline for the filing of this story.