Court keeps Watkins on bench pending outcome of ethics probes

Watkins

CHARLESTON – A Putnam family law judge will remain on the bench while he contests two sets of ethics charges.

The state Supreme Court on Sept. 5 voted 3-2 not to suspend William M. "Chip" Watkins III without pay following a second statement of charges filed against him Aug. 31 by its Judicial Investigation Commission. Justices Robin Jean Davis and Margaret Workman voted to suspend Watkins.

Like all family judges, Watkins' annual salary is $94,000. In 2011, the state Legislature passed, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin approved a judicial pay raise bill that, among other things, boosted the income of family law judges $12,000.

The statement accuses Watkins, 58, of 24 violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct for his unprofessional behavior in the cases of Rev. Arthur D. Hage, Sharon Stinson, Robert R. Harper, Sr. Tammy Jo Lambert and Mark Halburn. Specifically, the statement alleges Watkins regularly used foul, and abrasive language going so far as to call Lambert a "stupid woman, Zachary Wayne Pauley -– the father of Stinson's child –- a "dumb shit" and Halburn the "south end of a north-bound horse."

Also, during a May 23 hearing regarding division of property between Hage and his estranged wife, Lillian, Watkins at one point screamed so loud that the courtroom microphones became distorted. A video of the hearing was later uploaded to YouTube which was since been seen nearly 200,000 times, and has made news as far away as Great Britain.
Answer made to first set

The statement of charges came exactly a month after another that was filed against Watkins by Steve Canterbury, the Court's administrative director. In the July 31 statement, JIC accused Watkins of six Code violations for failing to not only timely make a ruling for division of property between John J. and Nancy Black, but also to upload domestic violence protective orders to the Court's registry.

Through his attorney Robert P. Martin with the Charleston law firm of Bailey and Wyant, Watkins filed his answer Sept. 7.

In regard to the Black divorce, Watkins admits that it took him two years to make a ruling on the motions between the time they were filed and when the Court granted John's writ of mandamus on July 5. However, he denied his inaction during that time in any way violated the Code of Conduct.

Also, Watkins admitted he told a JIC investigator that the circuit court did not have the authority "'to compel me to do anything,'" and the only one that did was the Court. However, he said his comment was "not intended to be defiant but rather, a reference to [his] understanding of the law."

In regard to uploading domestic violence orders to the Court's registry, Watkins admits he has not always acted with haste. However, he denied failing to timely upload orders in two cases specified in the statement, including a "permanent" one filed by Lillian Hage.

Also, Watkins admitted he sent Lisa Tackett, director of the Court's family court services' division, on March 11, 2009, a memo saying "his Office did not have time for the project." In his answer, Watkins attached a copy of the memo in which he said it was a "Wonderful Ideal [sic]," but expected to be provided assistance by the Court.

"When do we hire the extra clerical people?" Watkins asked. "We can't even answer the damn phone half the time, so I was curious where all the extra time to scan, etc. is this going to come from."

"Is this one of those parallel universe things?" he added.

In concluding his answer, Watkins offered a remedial plan to ensure he's in compliance with the Court's guidelines regarding domestic violence orders. As part of making every "effort to ensure that all orders are timely reviewed and entered into the Court's record," Watkins vowed to load all orders into the registry by noon from hearings conducted in the morning by the end of the business day from afternoon hearing.

Also, along with attending related education and training programs, Watkins said he and his staff "will make every effort to ensure all phone calls are either answered; and/or messages screened; and, to the extent possible are returned to all litigants, attorneys or court personnel within 24 hours."

Watkins has until Oct. 4 to answer the second statement of charges. Sometime after then, the case will go before the Judicial Hearing Board to determine if JIC has made its case against him, and, if so, recommended disciplinary action.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, case numbers 12-0925 and 12-1008

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