CHARLESTON – For not only his pattern of misconduct, but also failure to show remorse during a recent hearing, a judicial ethics panel is recommending a Putnam County family law judge be suspended for the remainder of his time on the bench.
The Judicial Hearing Board on Dec. 3 rendered its decision on a 24-count statement of charges filed by the Judicial Investigation Commission this summer against William M. “Chip” Watkins III. In its 42-page order, the Board said a conditional three-month suspension that JIC recommended Watkins receive for his “pattern of misconduct” following a Nov. 27 evidentiary hearing was too lenient, and instead recommended he be censured for all 24 violations, and be suspended without pay until his term of office ends on Dec. 31, 2016.
The only recommendation the Board adopted from JIC’s list is that Watkins pay the nearly $18,000 legal bill racked up to conduct the investigation against him.
In July, JIC issued its first statement against Watkins stemming from a complaint filed by Steve Canterbury, the Court’s administrative director. In it, JIC said Watkins not only failed to timely issue a ruling on a division of property between John J. and Nancy Black but also upload domestic violence orders to the Court’s registry.
The second statement was filed a month later stemming from complaints filed by Rev. Arthur D. Hage, Sharon Stinson, Robert R. Harper, Sr., Tammy Jo Lambert and Mark Halburn. The statement alleged Watkins either verbally abused them when they appeared as litigants in his courtroom or had contact with him.
Both statements were later combined into one.
In exchange for Watkins admitting to all of the allegations against him, JIC recommended he receive a three-month unpaid suspension. However, it recommended the suspension be stayed provided he agree to be monitored by another judge during that period, and not commit a “substantial” violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Also, JIC recommended Watkins undergo “intensive counseling” to include anger management, take “immediate, effective remedial measures in his office” and undergo six hours of judicial training specifically in the area of domestic violence.
In its order, the Board said Watkins’ “testimony made it appear to [us] that [he] was less than sincere.” It cited, among other things, when Halburn asked him to turn and face him when he was given an opportunity to address the Board, Watkins “turned his chair, leaned back, crossed his arms, and glared at [Halburn] in an angry and confrontational manner.”
This, the Board said, “stood in stark contrast to [his] demeanor during his own testimony.”
Also, the Board said not more than a month before the hearing, Watkins continued to blame others, specifically the Court, for his problems. Along with accusing it of “kowtowing to public opinion,” Watkins said the Court was making a mistake in allowing disciplinary action against “the best family law judge in West Virginia, without any question” to proceed, the order said.
In its order, the Board noted that under both the state Constitution and Rules of Judicial Disciplinary Procedure, the maximum penalty Watkins could receive was a consecutive one-year suspension and $5,000 fine for each Code violation. Since there was little precedent in West Virginia that a judicial officer was suspended for almost a quarter-century, the Board, citing similar case law from out of state, opted to recommend Watkins be placed on hiatus for the next four years.
Like all family law judges, Watkins, 58, is up for election again in 2016. A Republican, he was first elected in 2002 following passage of a constitutional amendment creating a family law system as part of a unified judiciary.
Both Watkins and JIC have until Jan. 2 to either accept or contest the Board’s order. Upon returning from its holiday recess later next month, the Court will consider the recommendations and vote to accept, reject or modify them.
According to the Board’s order, Watkins has two pending ethics complaints against him. JIC has refused to release the number of complaints filed against him between 2003 and 2011.