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Two Venerable Female Attorneys to be Honored Posthumously by College of Law

Two outstanding female attorneys who passed away in 2023 will be recognized posthumously at the College of Law’s graduation ceremony on May 10. Longtime public interest lawyer Cathy “Cat” McConnell and Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit will receive the 2024 College of Law Justitia Officium Awards. Established in 1978 to mark the 100th anniversary of the College of Law, the Justitia Officium is the highest honor bestowed by the law faculty in recognition of outstanding contributions and service to the legal profession.  Family members will accept the awards on behalf of the late attorneys. 

Cathy "Cat" McConnell

Cat McConnell served as the Executive Director of West Virginia Senior Legal Aid organization for over 25 years. She was a 1995 graduate of the WVU College of Law and a beloved figure in the West Virginia public interest community. She was a fierce advocate for disability rights and environmental justice who mentored many aspiring public interest attorneys. 

According to her daughter, Olivia, Cat was easily identified by the long flowing hair that she hadn't cut in decades, a wardrobe full of colorful tie dyes, and her beautiful singing voice. 

“She was a tremendous musician who could play many instruments,” she said. “Everyone thought she was a bass player, but the truth is that she was a guitarist first. It’s just there’s always a guitarist around and it’s hard to find someone to play the bass, so of course she just filled the gap. She’s always been in this position of supporting.”

Longtime colleague Micki Biggs, who considered McConnell to be a mentor, said she valued her “independent thinking and ability to make you think about things from a new vantage point.”

“She was very skeptical and inquisitive and made many valid points that I wouldn’t have thought of,” Biggs said. Biggs said that while McConnell was very dedicated to her career, she very much valued relationships and taking time to appreciate the present. 

For example, Biggs recalled a return trip from an elder law conference in Clarksburg with McConnell and a summer intern all traveling together. McConnell insisted upon taking the pair on a scenic, roundabout route so they could stop to see a friend’s baby goats. 

“She loved them and knew all of their names,” Biggs recalled. “That’s how she was. She would never miss a chance to stop and smell the roses and remember that everything’s not so serious.”

Judge Joanna Tabit

Judge Tabit, a Charleston native who earned her degree from the College of Law in 1986, is the second Justicia Officium recipient. Professor Charles DiSalvo remembers interviewing Tabit for a position in the entering 1L class in the spring of 1983.

“You could just tell immediately upon meeting her that she was a person of integrity and vision,” DiSalvo recalled. “I had this ‘no doubt’ feeling about her that she would be a wonderful addition not only to the student body but to the bar, and that’s why I recommended her.”

After graduation, Tabit began her career as a personal law clerk to former Surpreme Court Justice Thomas E. McHugh and then went on to work in the Appellate Division in the Office of the Attorney General from 1989 to 1992. In 1992, Tabit joined the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, where she was a member attorney. While in private practice, she was rated an AV lawyer by Martindale Hubbell and recognized by Chambers USA as a Leader in the Field, with a specialty in commercial litigation. In October 2014, she was appointed to the Kanawha County bench. She was elected to the bench in 2016 and also worked as an adjunct lecturer teaching summer appellate advocacy for the College of Law.

Tabit was also a dedicated volunteer, serving as a member of the Board of Governors of the West Virginia State Bar and a Commissioner on the City of Charleston Human Rights Commission.

Jay Arcenaux, a friend and colleague who worked with Tabit on cases and also on state bar committees, said she was a fair judge who always prepared. She was chairwoman of the Mass Litigation Panel, a member of the Juvenile Justice Commission, and a former member of the Business Court Division. She was also Presiding Judge over the Juvenile Drug Court and the Family Treatment Court.

“As a lawyer, the worst thing that can happen is you spend all your time drafting a motion and then you show up to argue it and the judge asks why are we here,” Arcenaux said. “That was not Joanna. If you showed up to Joanna’s courtroom, she had read it, digested it, was prepared had questions.”

He said while she was known for her brilliant mind, she will also be remembered for her positive energy and the way she loved being around people. 

“Every time you saw her, you left feeling a little better,” he said.

They will both be recognized posthumously at the College of Law’s graduation ceremony on May 10, 2024. Family members will accept the award on her behalf.

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