Watkins accused of overreach into child custody dispute
Lawrence Smith Aug. 31, 2012, 2:50am
WINFIELD – A Putnam County family law judge accused in multiple cases of lacking a sense of urgency in making rulings is now accused of acting hastily in child custody dispute.
William M. "Chip" Watkins III is named as a respondent in a writ of prohibition filed Aug. 17 by Patrick Wayne Miller II. In his writ, Miller asks the Putnam Circuit Court to halt an order Watkins entered in May ordering custody of his two children be turned over to his ex-wife, Coty Marie Miller, on the grounds the family court lacked the jurisdiction to consider the case, Watkins held a hearing on it without notifying him and then improperly served him with the final order.
According to the writ, Patrick and Coty were married in 2006. That same year, their first child, Nikayla, was born, followed by their second, Kazie, in 2008.
After moving to Nebraska, the pair divorced in 2010. As part of their final divorce decree they agreed to a 50/50 custodial arrangement with Nikayla, and Kazie.
Since their divorce, Patrick moved to Summerville, S.C. as part of his duties with the military. Coty moved to Cross Lanes.
According to the writ, the Millers have maintained the 50/50 custody despite living in separate states. However, as Nikayla prepared to start elementary school, they attempted to reach a new custodial arrangement to no avail.
Nevertheless, they both enrolled her in a school in their respective states.
On March 9, Patrick made a motion to the First Judicial Circuit in Dorchester County, S.C. to have the Nebraska child custody order registered. Upon receiving notice of Patrick's motion, Coty on March 26 filed her objection.
According to the writ, the same day she filed a motion in Putnam Family Court to have the custody order registered there. On a date not specified, Patrick filed his objection to Coty's motion, and included with it his pleadings to the South Carolina court.
On May 15, Dorchester County Judge William J. Wylie, Jr. held a hearing on Patrick's motion. In the course of it, Wylie registered the custodial order with the state of South Carolina, and instructed Patrick and Coty, both of whom where in attendance, "to abide by a mandatory mediation provision in the Nebraska Order."
However, Wylie deferred making a ruling on South Carolina accepting jurisdiction in the case in order to modify the order "until after the parties had attempted mediation and [he] could confer with the West Virginia court."
Five days later, Watkins entered an order taking jurisdiction of the Miller's custody dispute. According to the writ, he did this "with no prior notice to the parties, without conducting any hearing on the matter, and based solely on review of the pleadings."
Believing she may make the trip to South Carolina to take the children from him, Patrick on Aug. 6 filed a petition for custody, visitation and child support. Though the writ does not specify if the case was assigned to the same judge, a hearing on it was scheduled for Aug. 15.
According to the writ, Watkins three days later entered an ex parte order granting Coty custody of Nikayla and Kazie until a hearing could be held on Aug. 20. In his order, Watkins said that "any delay in starting school in West Virginia on time will irreparably harm these children."
Also, Watkins stated in his order that any failure by Patrick to turn custody of Nikayla and Kazie over to Coty prior the hearing "shall result in the entry of an Order for the immediate apprehension of [Patrick] and an Order to pick these children up upon their return to this County or State." The Order, according to the writ, was not entered with the Putnam Circuit Clerk's Office, and "served" on Patrick via a fax transmittal from Coty's workplace to Patrick's South Carolina attorney.
In his writ, Patrick says Watkins' rulings have violated his due process rights. Especially the Aug. 9 ex parte order as it not only was it improperly served on him, but he also was threatened with arrest for failing to abide by it.
"Petitioner's entitlement to relief could not be clearer on this issue," Miller says. "Petitioner is entitled to a writ of prohibition against the Family Court of Putnam County because the family court violated the Petitioner's due process rights guaranteed under both the Federal and State Constitutions, as well as the explicit requirements of the U[niform] C[hild] C[ustody] J[urisdiction] and E[nforcement] A[ct] by purporting to modify a child-custody dispute without giving the petitioner notice and the right to be heard."
Miller is represented by Mark J. Kelley with the Charleston law firm of Ray, Winton and Kelley. The case is assigned to Judge Phillip M. Stowers.
As of presstime, neither Watkins nor Coty Miller filed an answer to the writ, and a hearing on it had yet to be scheduled.
Since he was first elected family law judge in 2002, at least nine writs have been filed against Watkins to either Putnam Circuit or the state Supreme Court. Most have been a writ of mandamus where a litigant has asked the higher court to compel him to make a ruling.
This includes the John J. Black case which reached the Court in June after Watkins twice ignored orders by the circuit court to make rulings on division of property between he, and his ex-wife, Nancy. The Court on July 5 gave Watkins the ultimatum to rule on the motions, which had been pending before him for the last two years, by July 10 or be held in contempt.
He made a ruling the next day.
However, partially as a result of his foot-dragging in the Black case, Steve Canterbury, the Court's administrative director, filed an extraordinary ethics complaint against Watkins on July 17 with the Judicial Investigation Commission. Because Nancy Black is JIC's executive secretary, the investigation was handled by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The investigation found probable cause to Canterbury's complaint resulting. A two-count statement of charges alleging six violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct was filed against Watkins with the Court on July 31, and served on him Aug. 7.
Since then, Watkins has publically denied the allegations, and has vowed to fight them. He has until Sept. 7 to file an answer.
Putnam Circuit Court case number 12-C-258