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Preston Shannon, second longest serving judge on SCC, dies at 96
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Preston Shannon, second longest serving judge on SCC, dies at 96

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Hullihen W. Moore (from left), Preston C. Shannon and Ted Morrison were judges on the State Corporation Commission. “We shall not see his like again,” Moore said of Mr. Shannon.

Preston Caperton Shannon was the first judge on the State Corporation Commission to use a personal computer, so it was no surprise that he wanted the commission’s new home in downtown Richmond to deploy the technology of the future.

The Tyler Building, conceived by Mr. Shannon in 1986 and dedicated in 1993 on the 90th anniversary of the SCC’s founding, was equipped with fiber-optic cable for high-speed data and thermal storage for cooling, then the latest technologies for the telecommunications and electric utility industries the commission regulated.

“If we’re going to regulate these industries, we’ve got to be the epitome of efficiency ourselves,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in late 1992.

Mr. Shannon, who died on Nov. 12 at age 96, was the epitome of a changing SCC — a former railroad lawyer who embraced competition, yet championed the role of regulation in a career that spanned 24 years as a judge on the commission, second only to the 47-year tenure of Judge Lester Hooker, with whom he briefly served.

“He was serious about the commission’s business, frugal about its expenditures, yet very, very progressive,” said former SCC Judge Ted Morrison, a former state delegate who still takes pride in construction of the $39 million building “without a dime of state general fund money.”

“He was dedicated and loyal to the ends of the earth to the commission,” said Morrison, who added, “If we had more public servants like Preston Shannon, the country would have far fewer problems.”

A native of Front Royal, Mr. Shannon came to the SCC in 1969, serving as commerce counsel after 12 years as an attorney for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Co. He was the only member of the commission’s staff elected by the General Assembly as judge on the powerful panel, created in the 1902 state constitution as an independent body to counter the political influence of the railroad industry over the legislature.

The SCC’s independence has eroded in the past 25 years, as the local telephone monopoly has mostly disappeared into deregulated markets and Dominion Energy, the state’s largest public utility, has flirted with deregulation and then re-regulation with legislative limits on commission authority.

In 1995, a bitter battle erupted in the General Assembly over the SCC’s power after it intervened in a high-profile feud between what was known then as Virginia Power and its private holding company, then called Dominion Resources.

“The thing that’s been the commission’s strength over the years ... is its independence,” Mr. Shannon said then.

As the General Assembly has curbed that independence, Mr. Shannon “didn’t like it, but he wasn’t bitter about it,” Morrison said. “He just thought, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”

Mr. Shannon helped Virginia’s telephone companies experiment with deregulation in the early 1990s — some thought prematurely — but also enforced the “Shannon Doctrine,” requiring them to keep their facilities and decision makers in the state, despite consolidation with large national corporations.

“You have an obligation to serve Virginia from Virginia!” he publicly scolded the Virginia Telephone Association in 1993.

Mr. Shannon was elected in 1972 to replace Judge Jesse Dillon after his sudden death. It was the beginning of an era of high-profile battles over Virginia Electric & Power Co., which Democratic populist politician Henry Howell derided as “the Very Expensive Power Company,” vowing to “keep the Big Boys honest” in three unsuccessful campaigns for governor.

Howell, a gifted lawyer, often took his crusade into the SCC courtroom.

“It was an adversarial system: Either you were one of the Big Boys or you weren’t,” Mr. Shannon recalled after Howell’s death in 1997. “It put the commission in the middle.”

Judge Hullihen W. Moore also appeared before the SCC for 20 years as a lawyer for public utility customers, before his election to the commission in 1992.

“Preston was fair from the bench when I was a lawyer and did much to improve the commission,” Moore said in a letter to The Times-Dispatch after Mr. Shannon’s death. “As a colleague, I got to see his love for the commission through decisions large and small, his care for day-to-day operations of the SCC and his concern for its hundreds of employees.”

“We shall not see his like again,” he added.

Mr. Shannon joined the U.S. Army as a lieutenant after graduating from high school in 1943. He later served in Japan and visited Hiroshima in January 1946, five months after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city. In his office, he kept a small porcelain pitcher that had been charred by the blast, according to Morrison.

“It certainly made an indelible impression on my mind of the awesomeness of nuclear power,” Mr. Shannon said in 1989.

Mr. Shannon graduated from The Citadel in 1949 and earned his law degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary in 1952. He then worked for the Fidelity & Deposit Insurance Co. of Maryland, before joining C&O Railway in 1957.

A resident of Chesterfield County, he is survived by his wife of 68 years, Ann; two sons, Robert, of Midlothian, and William, of Glen Allen; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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