Putnam family law judge faces conditional suspension for ‘pattern of misconduct’

By Lawrence Smith | Nov 29, 2012

CHARLESTON - In exchange for his admission he engaged in a pattern of misconduct by inappropriately berating litigants in his courtroom, a state ethics panel is recommending a Putnam family law judge receive a conditional three-month suspension.

At the beginning of the Nov. 27 evidentiary hearing on two statements of charges filed against William M. “Chip” Watkins III, Special Judicial Disciplinary Counsel Rachael L. Fletcher Cipoletti announced to the Judicial Hearing Board that prior to the hearing Watkins admitted to all 30 violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct in both statements

One statement accused Watkins of six Code violations in failing to timely make a ruling regarding division of property between John J. and Nancy Black, and upload domestic violence protective orders to the state Supreme Court’s registry, and the other accused him of 24 violations in failing to exercise proper decorum in cases involving Rev. Arthur D. Hage, Sharon Stinson, Robert R. Harper, Sr., Tammy Jo Lambert and Mark Halburn.

In exchange for Watkins’ admission, the Judicial Investigation Commission recommended he be suspended 90 days without pay. However, it recommended the suspension be stayed while another judge monitor his performance.

Should Watkins commit a “substantial breach” of the Code or fail to cooperate with the supervising judge during the monitoring period, then he would begin the 90-day unpaid suspension.

Also, JIC recommended Watkins undergo “intensive counseling” to include anger management, take “immediate, effective remedial measures in his office,” undergo six hours of judicial training specifically in the area of domestic violence and pay the costs of the disciplinary proceeding.  Records show the bill came to $17,759.61.

During the 50-minute hearing, Watkins, 58, was the only person either Cipoletti, or Bob Martin, Watkins’s attorney, called to testify.

During Cipoletti’s direct examination, Watkins said that, since he was first elected in 2002, he’s done “an outstanding job” as family law judge.  However, he admitted to making some mistakes that included “thoughtless” comments to Lambert, Stinson and Harper.

The reason he agreed to admit to the allegations, Watkins said, was so he can “become a better judge and serve the people of Putnam County."

When he was cross-examined by Martin, Watkins said health challenges both he and his wife, Rhonda, face has contributed to his ill temper. On the stand, Watkins disclosed he was diagnosed with multiple heart ailments that resulted in three catheterizations, and Rhonda had several vertebrae removed resulting in her inability to walk.

Also, Watkins said he, at times, operated his courtroom much like an assembly line in moving cases quickly through due to the growing caseload.  He pledged to give more thoughtful, and timely consideration to all cases.

“I need to slow down and exercise judicial independence,” Watkins said. “There’s no more stressful job than that of a family court judge."

Prior to conclusion of the hearing, the Board gave an opportunity to any of the named complainants to speak. Only Harper and Halburn took advantage of the opportunity.

When asked to speak, Harper moved his motorized wheelchair forward to the bar, and pulled himself upright on his one leg.  Harper said he should spend the same amount of time in jail that Watkins ordered him to spend after holding him in contempt.

Earlier this year, Watkins ordered Harper jailed for 21 days when he, during a hearing for child support, refused to disclose what he received in a medical malpractice settlement stemming from the suit he filed regarding the loss of his leg.  A confidentiality agreement he signed prevented him from doing so, Harper said.

After he started to speak from the back of the courtroom, Halburn asked Watkins to turn and face him.  When he didn’t, Halburn said, “Judge Watkins, I’d like for you to turn and face me like a man.”

For a brief period, Watkins did with his arms folded.

Halburn called Watkins “a liar” for comments he made against himself and others.  He said he took to heart Watkins calling him “a certified nut case.

“Coming from you, that’s a compliment,” Halburn said.

Halburn said  Watkins’ “bullying and boorish” behavior started when he was an attorney in private practice. He said he did not hold out any hope the disciplinary proceeding, which he called “a sham,” would change anything. Instead, he said Watkins should resign.          

At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board adjourned to begin its deliberations. Through its counsel, Ancil Ramey, the Board said it would not be making them that day, but instead sometime “within the next few weeks.”

After receiving the recommendations, the Court, sometime early next year, will vote to accept, reject or modify them.

The West Virginia Record attempted to find out the number of ethics complaints that have been filed against Watkins since becoming a family law judge, including those filed this year.  JIC has not released that information.

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