CHARLESTON – Already facing possible disciplinary action for his lack of professionalism in a Hurricane pastor’s divorce, a Putnam County family law judge has complied with the state Supreme Court’s order that he issue a ruling on motions that have been pending in another divorce for nearly two years.
The Court on July 5 ordered Judge William M. “Chip” Watkins III to make rulings on motions in the divorce of John J. and Nancy Black by July 10 or be held in contempt. The Court’s ultimatum, issued in the form of a memorandum opinion, came in response to a writ of mandamus John Black filed last month after Watkins not once, but twice ignored orders by Putnam County’s two circuit judges to render a decision.
Memorandum opinions are issued by the Court in cases that would not be significantly aided by oral arguments, and present no new or significant questions of law.
Up and down the judicial ladder
Black’s first writ of mandamus was filed in February 2011. In it, he asked Judge O.C. “Hobby” Spaulding to order Watkins to finalize equitable distribution of property between he and Nancy.
According to court records, Watkins granted the Blacks’ divorce petition on Nov. 14, 2008. However, along with the sale of their home, John alleged Watkins had yet to make a determination on a qualified domestic relations order on their pensions that was presented to him on July 9, 2010.
Records show, Spaulding on Feb. 7, 2011, granted Black’s writ, and ordered Watkins to hold a hearing on the final distribution of property within 30 days. For reasons not immediately clear, the hearing was not held until June 1.
When Watkins failed to make a ruling by Oct. 24, Black filed his second writ of mandamus. Through his attorney, Mark Kelley, Black said “the family court’s delay of nearly five months in rendering a decision is unreasonable particularly given the length of time involved since the petition was originally filed, and puts [Black] in the position of having to expend, for a second time, unnecessary legal fees to force [Watkins] to perform his required duty.”
Judge Phillip M. Stowers on Dec. 20 agreed saying Black “is entitled to have an order entered from the June 1, 2011 hearing.” In granting Black’s second writ of mandamus, Stowers ordered Watkins to issue a final decision on the Black’s property by Feb. 20.
When Watkins filed to abide by Stowers’ order, Black filed a writ of mandamus with the Court on June 12. Upon receiving it, the Court gave Watkins until June 28 to respond.
When he failed to respond, the Court had one of its clerks contact Watkins’ case coordinator, Lori Mitchell, the morning of July 5 who “confirmed Judge Watkins has still failed to issue a decision as no order has been entered.” In its decision, the Court said Watkins’ dawdling is unacceptable.
“Respondent [Watkins] has shown no just cause for his failure to comply with orders of the court,” the Court said. “In fact, he has failed to provide any response. It is abundantly clear that the petitioner [Black] is entitled to the relief requested in this matter.”
Also, the Court said Watkins’ inaction has not only harmed Black, but also the judiciary. Not only did his foot-dragging violate Article III, Section 17 of the state Constitution that states ” ‘justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay,’ ” but also various provision of the Code of Judicial Conduct, and West Virginia Trial Court Rules that ” ‘[a] judge shall dispose of all judicial matters promptly, efficiently, and fairly’ ” and “effectuate expeditious movement and timely disposition of all cases assigned to them.”
Specifically, the Court said Watkins’ inaction clearly violated Trial Court Rule 16.06 that directs family law judges to enter orders on “‘post-hearing motions within one month of submission.’”
Court Clerk Rory L. Perry II confirmed Watkins issued a ruling on the motions the next day, and they were to the Court’s satisfaction.
The Court’s decision came just over a week after a video was made public showing Watkins unleashing a tirade on Rev. Arthur D. Hage during a May 23 hearing involving division of marital assets with his estranged wife, Lillian. The video, which has since made national news, shows Watkins falsely accusing Hage of being behind an article that appeared on a Putnam County news website the day before about Watkins last Fall failing to be “in good standing” with his homeowner’s association dues.
At one point, Watkins accuses Hage of being responsible for acts of vandalism that occurred to his home on Raintree Drive in the Brierwood subdivision in Teays Valley following publication of the article. Should he discover Hage was behind it, Watkins assured him “I will resign this bench and I will personally see to it that you never see a free day in your life.”
One of Hage’s parishioners, Paul Bentley, who accompanied him to the hearing, also filed an ethics complaint against Watkins for ordering him to leave the Putnam County Judicial Building for no apparent reason. The video not only shows Watkins ordering his bailiff to throw Bentley out, but also brought into the courtroom “[i]f he smiles” so as “to answer what’s so damn funny.”
Because Nancy Black is the executive secretary for the Judicial Investigation Commission, the arm of the Court that investigates judicial misconduct, Hage’s and Bentley’s complaints have been referred to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for investigation.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 12-0720