Paul Zakaib Jr., who served 28 years as a Kanawha County Circuit Judge after being elected to four terms in the West Virginia House of Delegates, died Tuesday at age 86.
The son of a Syrian immigrant who operated a Charleston variety store, Zakaib worked in downtown shoe stores and sold doughnuts door to door across the county to help pay for expenses at Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston, and then law school at West Virginia University.
Zakaib interrupted his studies at Morris Harvey to serve in the U.S. Army for two years during the Korean War.
“My father always talked to me about the noble profession of law,” Zakaib said in a 1986 Charleston Gazette interview after he was sworn in as a new Kanawha County circuit judge. “As far back as I remember, I wanted to be a lawyer.”
After law school, he worked as an attorney for several state agencies, including the Tax Department, Department of Commerce and Department of Employment Security before entering private practice, which included a 10-year association with the Charleston firm Preiser & Wilson.
A Republican in the era of Democratic dominance in the state’s political arena, he was elected in 1966 to the House of Delegates, where he served through 1974.
During his tenure as a circuit judge, “among his many, many accomplishments was a complete overhaul of the county’s mental hygiene office,” said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, who served on Zakaib’s first election committee. “Judge Zakaib had a particular interest in a group of people who have few true advocates and are too often marginalized, and his leadership improved the legal system for them.”
“He represented the very best of the judicial system,” Charleston attorney and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango said. “He was revered and admired by all that had the privilege to appear before him.”
Chief Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit, who succeeded Zakaib when he retired from the bench in 2014, said she had known Zakaib all her life, as he was a family friend. She recalled Zakaib giving her a West Virginia Blue Book, the state Legislature guide, when she was 10 years old, after she helped hand out flyers during his campaign for the House of Delegates. Tabit said she still has that Blue Book.
“I cherished it then, and I still cherish it now,” she said.
Tabit said Zakaib was a “consummate jurist and dedicated public servant.”
“It was a privilege to practice in front of him,” she said. “It was one of the greatest honors of my life to succeed him on the bench.”
Like Zakaib, Judge Tod Kaufman served in the Legislature before presiding on the bench. Kaufman said Zakaib was “diligent, committed and astute” as a judge.
“He worked harder and longer than probably any other judge that I served with,” Kaufman said. “Our careers dovetailed in both the Legislature and on the bench, and people really liked Paul in all ends of the county. He and his family will be in our thoughts and prayers during this Thanksgiving.”
The last case Judge Duke Bloom tried as an attorney, before he became a judge, was in front of Zakaib, which turned out to be a good experience, he said Wednesday.
“I got to be reminded of what a good trial judge should be: kind, compassionate, fair and impartial,” Bloom said. “That’s what stood out about Judge Zakaib. Not only was he a good trial judge, but he was an excellent colleague, and he will be missed by the Kanawha County Bar and the citizens of Kanawha County.”
Judge Jennifer Bailey recalled Zakaib’s experience when she was newly presiding in Kanawha Circuit Court, saying it was an honor to serve alongside him.
Bailey said she’d hoped Zakaib had been able to enjoy his time with his family during the five years since he retired, saying all of the judges and court staff were thinking of them this week.
“He set an example with the way he treated everyone,” Bailey said. “Every litigant, regardless of the size of their case, whether they were pro se or represented by counsel, it was very important to him, how he treated people, and I think all of us should follow that example.”
Judge Carrie Webster’s courtroom was next door to Zakaib’s during her first years as a circuit judge, and she also had argued cases before him before she became a judge.
Webster recalled a particular meeting with Zakaib, where he said something that’s become part of her philosophy as a judge.
“He said you have to temper justice with mercy,” Webster said. “I thought that was well said, and I have found as I have evolved as a judge that enters my mind a lot. I haven’t had too many people in my life who have said something so profound that it’s stayed with me or that I’ve used as a sort of point of reference that that has.”
Judge Tera Salango, who worked in the Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office early in her career, said Zakaib was a “sweet man” who was “one of them we all just loved.”
“When I was a young prosecutor, I spent a lot of time in Judge Zakaib’s courtroom, and I learned a lot from him,” Salango said. “I always admired his demeanor, and how calm and fair he was with everyone in his courtroom. He will be greatly missed.”
Funeral arrangements for Zakaib were incomplete Wednesday afternoon.