Ethics charges filed against Putnam family law judge

By Lawrence Smith | Aug 10, 2012

CHARLESTON – A Putnam County family law judge is being called to task for his ethical lapses, but not for hiJs unprofessional behavior toward litigants.

The Judicial Investigation Commission on Friday filed a two-count statement of charges against William M. "Chip" Watkins III.  The statement, which acts like an indictment for disciplinary purposes, accuses Watkins, 58, of six violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Neither the two counts stem from any of the six complaints that have been filed this year by those who appeared before Watkins, and alleged he verbally abused them, including Hurricane Pastor Arthur D. Hage.  A video Hage released in June to accompany a complaint he filed showed Watkins during a May 23 screaming so loud the courtroom microphones became distorted went viral, and made national news.

Instead, the counts stem from comments Watkins made in reference to his failure to timely issue a ruling in a divorce involving a Court employee, and the other for his reluctance to participate in the Court's domestic violence registry.  The latter count specifically accuses Watkins of failing to register at least two domestic violence petitions, including one filed by Hage's estranged wife, Lillian, which is partially the basis of Arthur's appeal to the Court.

Slow to conclude divorce

According to the statement, the first count deals with the divorce of John J. and Nancy Black.  Though divorced in 2008, the Blacks were still contesting, among other things, equitable distribution of property, including determination on a qualified domestic relations order on their pensions that was presented to Watkins on July 9, 2010.

Despite three writs of mandamus the Putnam circuit court granted John between Feb. 11, 2011, and April 20, ordering him to make a ruling on the pending motions, records show Watkins failed to do so.  That eventually led to John filing a fourth writ of mandamus to the Court on June 12.

On July 5, the Court ordered Watkins to make a ruling on the pending motions by July 10 or be held in contempt.  By the next day, Watkins made a ruling, and the case was removed from the Court's docket July 9.

However, Watkins' foot-dragging prompted Steve Canterbury, director of the Court's administrative office to file an extraordinary complaint with JIC on July 17.  In his complaint, Canterbury alleged Watkins' inaction in the Black case "violated Article III, Section 17 of the West Virginia Constitution, Canon 3B(8) of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Trial Court Rules 16.03 and 16.13."

Because Nancy Black is their executive secretary, JIC referred Canterbury's complaint to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for investigation.

According to the statement, the investigator assigned to the case had difficultly getting in touch with Watkins as he apparently started a vacation on July 20.  Eventually, the investigator met with Watkins on an unspecified day at his home in Teays Valley.

In the course of the interview, Watkins told the investigator that "the Circuit Court had no authority over the Family Court and it did not have the authority to 'compel me to do anything.'" Along with saying that "the only Court with any authority over him was the Supreme Court," he said "'[t]he only problem with this case was two lawyers who could not follow clear instructions from the Court.'"

Watkins was referring to Charleston attorneys Mark Kelley and Jim Cagle who represented John and Nancy, respectively.

Because he not only "willfully and continuously" refused to recognize the power of the circuit court, but also refused to comply with the three writs of mandamus, Watkins was charged with violating Canons 1A, 2A, 3B(1) and 3B(8). They deal, respectively, with a judge upholding the independence and integrity of the judiciary, avoiding the appearance of impropriety, and performing his or her duties impartially and diligently.

Hesitant to register DV orders

The second count stems from Watkins' failure to follow state law by timely entering final domestic violence protective orders into a state registry.  According to the statement, "[s]ince the inception of the registry, despite multiple attempts to provide [Watkins] and his staff training on the Registry, [Watkins] has failed to be compliant with the requirements of the Domestic Violence Registry."

In fact, on March 11, 2009, Watkins sent a memo via fax to both Canterbury, and Lisa Tackett, the Court's director for family court services, "stating that his Office did not have time for the project." Also, Angela Saunders, the Court's director for court services, says "her staff must continuously request that [Watkins'] office place final protective orders on the domestic violence protective order registry."

According to the statement, registry staff had to needle Watkins in October 2010 to upload an order regarding an unspecified offender who was in possession of a firearm.  The offender previously was arrested for following his victim with a firearm.

The statement accused Watkins of failing to upload the protective order he entered in the Hage's case.  Though he uploaded an order on September 28, Watkins failed to register the "lifetime protective order," that is at the center of Arthur's appeal of their divorce to the Court.

The lifetime order prohibited Arthur from discussing with anyone Lillian's mental health. A footnote in the statement makes reference to Arthur filing two complaints against Watkins.

According the statement, Cabell Family Law Judge Patricia Keller, who was appointed to the Hage's case after Watkins recused himself following release of the video showing his tirade, on July 27 retroactive to September 28.  In her ruling, Keller stated "'[i]t is the responsibility of the family court to enter protective orders on the registry, and they failed to do so.'"

"By refusing and/or failing to cause any and all domestic violence related orders to be properly registered in the West Virginia Domestic Violence Registry," Watkins was also charged with violating Canon 2A and 3C(1). The latter also deals with a judge performing his or her duties impartially and diligently, but specifically he or she "should cooperate with other judges and court officials in the administration of court business."

10 years on the bench

According to the statement, Watkins has 30 days to file a reply.  After that, the case will go before the Judicial Hearing Board for an evidentiary hearing.

A Republican, Watkins is in his second term as family law judge.  Like many of his colleagues, he previously served as family lawmaster, and was appointed judge in 2001 following passage of a constitutional amendment in 2000 creating the family courts as part of unified judicial system.

When it was first created, the family law system was divided into 35 districts.  From 2002 until 2007, Putnam was included with Mason and Jackson counties as part of the 5th Family Law Circuit.

In 2002, Watkins and Deloris J. "Jeanie" Nibert, a Democrat, ran unopposed for the two seats. They, like all family law judges, ran for one six-year term.

Following passage of legislation in 2007, the family law circuits were redrawn, and 10 new seats created.  Starting in 2008, Putnam became the 26th Family Law Circuit, and Mason and Jackson counties were merged with Wirt to become the new 5th Circuit.

In 2008, Watkins again ran unopposed for a full eight-year term.  The enabling legislation said the family law judges, like circuit judges, would have serve for eight years, and all run in the same election cycle.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 12-0925

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