Court orders Putnam family judge to rule in divorce or be held in contempt

By Lawrence Smith | Jul 5, 2012


CHARLESTON – A Putnam County family law judge facing disciplinary action for his lack of professionalism in a Hurricane pastor's divorce could be held in contempt if he fails to render a decision in another divorce by next week.

The state Supreme Court in a memorandum opinion issued July 5 ordered Judge William M. "Chip" Watkins III to make rulings on motions before him in the divorce of John J. and Nancy Black by Tuesday, July 10 or be held in contempt. The Court's ultimatum 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 that he rule on the motions that have been pending for almost two years.

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.

The Court's decision comes just over a week after a video was made public showing Watkins unleashing a tirade on the Rev. Arthur D. Hage during a 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 Web site the day before about Watkins last Fall failing to be "in good standing" with his homeowner's association dues.

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.'"

Should he fail to render a decision on Black's motions by July 10, Watkins will have to appear before the Court on Aug. 7 to argue why he should not be held in contempt.

Complaints pending

Regardless of what happens in the Black case, Watkins still faces an investigation by the Judicial Investigation Commission into his conduct during the Hage hearing. During the 10-minute hearing, Watkins at times screams so loud that what he says is distorted.

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 assures 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."

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 12-0720

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