CHARLESTON – A Putnam family law judge’s unruly behavior — which has been uploaded multiple times to the Internet, and, in one instance, made international headlines — again will have to account for his actions before an ethics panel.
The Judicial Investigation Commission, the arm of the state Supreme Court that investigates misconduct by judicial officers, on Aug. 31 filed a five-count statement of charges against William M. “Chip” Watkins III. The statement, which acts like an indictment for disciplinary purposes, accuses Watkins, 58, of 24 violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics in complaints filed against him by Rev. Arthur D. Hage, Sharon Stinson, Robert Harper, Tammy Jo Lambert and Mark Halburn.
Videos Hage, Harper and Lambert accompanied with their complaints showing Watkins using abrasive and fowl language in their hearings found their way on YouTube. The video from the May 23 hearing in Hage’s case, showing Watkins screaming so loud that the courtroom microphones become distorted, has, to date, been viewed over 190,000 times, and was featured last month in the London Daily Mail.
The video in Lambert’s hearing was first broadcast Aug. 28 just over a year after it was held. In it, Watkins calls her a “stupid woman,” and asks her “Then why are you shooting off your fat mouth?”
In an interview with PutnamLive.com, which posted the hearing in its entirety, Lambert, a Scott Depot resident, and domestic violence survivor, said her encounter with Watkins was like being in an abusive relationship again.
“He made me feel terrible,” Lambert said. “I couldn’t believe a judge would act like that.”
“You don’t expect a West Virginia man to tear up a woman,” she added, “But William M. ‘Chip’ Watkins doesn’t act like a man, he acts like a punk jackass.”
JIC chided Watkins for not timely recusing himself in the divorce between Halburn, PutnamLive.com’s publisher, and his estranged wife, Dolores. Prior to their marriage in 1998, Watkins was Dolores’ bankruptcy attorney.
Also, JIC said Watkins was wrong to characterize Halburn in a Dec. 15, 2011, letter as the “south end of a north-bound horse” when he again addressed Watkins’s conflict of interest.
Unlike the others, Stinson’s complaint was first made public by release of the statement of charges. In her complaint filed May 3, Stinson felt Watkins crossed the line when he referred to the father of her child, Zachary Wayne Pauley, as a “dumb shit” during a hearing for modification for parenting time.
Though Watkins said he apologized for the comment, he showed little, if any, remorse in his response to Stinson’s complaint.
“I use earthy language at times to make a point,” Watkins said. “Ms. Stinson disagrees with my decision. That’s why we have appellate courts.
“There is nothing that even remotely alleges an ethics violation,” he added. “The sad thing is that in the time I’ve had to take to respond to this nonsense means that four hearings now have to be postponed.
“Inasmuch as I now over 2600 hearings per year, that means at least 8 people will have to wait an additional 3 to 4 months to have their case resolved. I would appreciate it in the future that you keep this in mind and perhaps do a little investigation of your own before you waste more valuable court time.”
In concluding the statement, JIC said Watkins’ behavior was inappropriate.
“[Watkins'] behavior exhibits a pattern and practice of an abject failure to treat litigants in his court room with the respect and dignity that the Canons require of him.”
Watkins has 30 days to answer the allegations. After that, the Judicial Hearing Board will hold a hearing to determine if JIC has made its case against him, and make a recommendation to the Court of what punishment he deserves.
The deadline is approaching for Watkins to respond to a statement of charges filed against him July 31. The statement stemmed from an extraordinary compliant filed by Steve Canterbury, the Court’s administrative director, July 17 for twice ignoring orders by the Putnam Circuit Court to issue rulings on division of property between John J. Black, and his ex-wife Nancy, and failing to timely upload final domestic violence protective orders to the Court’s domestic violence registry.
After he was served with the statement of charges on Aug. 7, Watkins vowed to vigorously contest it. In an interview with The Charleston Gazette, Watkins blamed the Blacks’ attorneys, Mark Kelley and Jim Cagle, for the delay in making the rulings, and a heavy caseload and lack of cooperation from the Court in his lack of diligence in dealing with the final protective orders.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 12-1008