An article Saturday incorrectly stated that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely was mentioned by the Heritage Foundation as a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court relinquished that title yesterday amid what he said was an "overwhelmingly unfavorable" reaction to his firing of a secretary who refused to baby-sit his son.

Judge Richard Neely said he is bowing to "the court of public opinion," which had decided that he was wrong to order the secretary, Tess Dineen, 59, to care for his 4-year-old son.

Neely, who was reelected to a second 12-year term last fall, said he will remain on the court. But he said he no longer will serve as chief justice, a position that rotates annually among the five justices, although he retains "the sincere conviction" that it was "appropriate" for Dineen and other staff members to perform personal tasks for him.

Neely, grandson of the late U.S. senator Matthew M. Neely (D-W.Va.), said Dineen knew before she was hired that she would be expected to baby-sit. He said male law clerks have accompanied him on trips to keep him awake, changed tires, taken his car to the garage and picked up his laundry.

"By tradition, your personal staff is your personal staff," Neely said. "I have the staff to do the chicken crap, while I grind out the work."

Justice Thomas McHugh disagreed. "They're [the staff] here to do work for court. My secretary has a child, and I have four children . . . . Not only has she not baby-sat for me, but I have not baby-sat for her child."

Dineen's firing sparked protests from the National Organization for Women (NOW), which held a rally outside the judge's chamber Wednesday, and from state employe unions and legislators.

Dineen, a patronage employe who lacks civil service or union protection, has worked for Neely about two years, during which she says she often took care of the judge's son, John, at her home and at his.

"At a certain point," Neely said, "a wife gets mad at you if she's doing all the baby-sitting."

After Dineen was required to spend a week with the child last month, while the judge and his wife, Carolyn, attended a bar association meeting in Alaska, she complained that the long hours were hurting her health. Neely says he told her she would be fired as of Sept. 1.

Dineen remained on the job this week but went home early yesterday and reportedly is looking for another job.

Patricia Holmes White, a legislator and former officer of the Charleston and West Virginia chapters of NOW, called Neely's announcement "a step in the right direction," but added, "Now he should take the next step and resign [from the bench.]"

Ann Garcelon, a state employe and president of the Charleston NOW chapter, said Neely "has . . . truly hurt the integrity of the court." She called for an investigation of whether Neely's action amounted to misspending public funds.

"I love that little boy just as though he were my own," said Dineen, whose daughter was among the protesters Wednesday, "but I'm a secretary, not a baby sitter . . . . The sad part is, Richard [Neely] doesn't see anything wrong with it."

Neely, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, is described by associates as a colorful character, given to making animal sounds from the bench and tossing boomerangs on the Statehouse lawn. A Democrat, he was mentioned this year by the conservative Heritage Foundation as a potential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.