In a split ruling, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Thursday said a municipal court didn’t have the authority to order the killing of Major, a pit bull terrier whose owner went to court to save the pooch’s life.

The dog’s troubles stem from a biting incident last year when an animal control officer responded to a complaint about Major and another dog at the home of Bluefield resident Estella Robinson, according to the court’s opinion. A municipal judge directed that the city kill the dog, citing a city ordinance that authorizes the destruction of dogs deemed “vicious, dangerous or in the habit of biting or attacking persons.”

Ms. Robinson, who last year pleaded guilty to having a dangerous animal, claimed that the municipal court’s death sentence clashed with a state dog regulation that says only circuit and magistrate courts may decide the fate of an allegedly dangerous canine. The state’s highest court agreed with her.

“A municipality seeking an order to kill a vicious or dangerous dog must do so in circuit or magistrate court,” wrote Justice Menis E. Kethum in the opinion.

Justice Allen H. Loughry Jr., in a dissenting opinion, said he strongly disagreed with the majority’s ruling.

“In complete disregard of the unfortunate truth that not all dogs are like the beloved Lassie, a vicious dog has been granted a pardon by the highest court of this State,” he wrote, noting that the officer whom Major attacked required surgery and several days of hospitalization.

Justice Loughry said he loves animals — recalling his “fond memories of [his] childhood companion and faithful dog, ‘Bozo,’ — but said he’s not blinded to “the sad reality” that some dogs are dangerous and vicious.

He also said he was concerned that the ruling could “serve as a springboard for further diminishment of the authority and duty of municipal courts to enforce municipal ordinances.”

An attorney representing Ms. Robinson couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Brian K. Cochran, an attorney representing Bluefield, told Law Blog that the ruling throws into doubt the ability of West Virginia municipalities to enforce their own ordinances. He predicted that Bluefield and other cities would lobby state lawmakers to amend the state’s canine regulations so that municipal courts are explicitly empowered to authorize the killing of a dangerous dog.

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