CHARLESTON – A Putnam County family law judge has been suspended for the remainder of his elected term.
The state Supreme Court on March 26 accepted the recommendation of its Judicial Hearing Board and ordered William M. “Chip” Watkins III suspended until completion of his term on Dec. 31, 2016.
Also, the court accepted the board’s other recommendations that Watkins, 59, be censured for all 24 violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct he admitted to violating and pay the nearly $18,000 legal tab for the investigation and hearing.
In a 27-page opinion speaking on behalf of a unanimous court, Justice Menis E. Ketchum said the actions were appropriate given Watkins’ lack of decorum and respect for both the people that appeared before him and the judicial system.
“We recognize that regulating the demeanor of a judge is a difficult task, because judges are human and may occasionally display anger or annoyance, and lawyers and litigants sometimes incite judges,” Ketchum said.
“Judges must also be allowed some flexibility in criticizing the performance of lawyers who appear before them. But a judge owes a duty to treat lawyers and litigants courteously, to hear them patiently, to study their arguments and evidence conscientiously, and to decide their cases promptly.
“The overriding goal of judicial discipline is to preserve public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. That confidence was plainly sullied by the actions of Judge Watkins.”
Allegations of Watkins’ misconduct first came to light in late June when Hurricane Pastor Art Hage released a video showing Watkins screaming and verbally berating him for the better part of a 15-minute hearing held the month before regarding division of property between he and his estranged wife, Lillian.
After being posted on YouTube, the video was viewed more than 200,000 times and made headlines both in the U.S. and abroad, including Canada, England and Australia.
Later, other litigants - including Robert Harper, Sharon Stinson and Tammy Jo Lambert - lodged complaints with the Judicial Investigation Commission alleging Watkins used foul, abrasive and inappropriate language when they appeared before him. Their complaints, along with Hage’s and one filed by Mark Hallburn, were combined into the second statement of charges filed against Watkins on Aug. 31.
The first statement, filed the month before, stemmed from a complaint filed by Steven D. Canterbury, the court’s administrative director. In his complaint, Canterbury alleged Watkins and his staff not only failed to timely upload domestic violence protective orders to the court’s registry, but also, only by the court threatening to hold him contempt, did he issue a final ruling on two-year old motions regarding division of property in John J. and Nancy Black’s divorce.
Because Nancy Black is JIC’s executive secretary, the task of investigating and later prosecuting Watkins was turned over to Rachael L. Fletcher Cipoletti with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the arm of the court that investigates attorney misconduct.
Afterwards, both statements were combined into one. Two weeks prior to a Nov. 27 evidentiary hearing on the statement, Watkins admitted to 24 Code violations.
In exchange for his admission, Cipoletti recommended Watkins receive a conditional suspension in which if he agreed to be supervised by another judge and have no other complaints filed against him, a three-month unpaid suspension would be held in abeyance. However, believing he lacked sincerity in both his expression of remorse and pledge to change his behavior, the board opted to recommend a harsher punishment of suspending him until completion of his term.
Watkins’ attorney Robert P. Martin argued the recommended suspension potentially violated the state Constitution as it amounted to a “judicial impeachment.” At most, he said the court could only suspend Watkins up to one year for all 24 Code violations.
However, the court found those arguments unpersuasive, Ketchum said, since both the grounds for, and consequences of impeachment are entirely different from the court punishing a judicial officer for code violations.
“First, under the West Virginia Constitution,” Ketchum said, “suspending a judge carries substantially different consequences than impeaching and removing a judge from office. Second, the Constitution explicitly and inherently empowers this Court to impose all disciplinary measures short of removal from the bench in order to foster public confidence in the judiciary, and to preserve its integrity.
“The sanctions recommended by the board come nowhere close to the sanctions that would result from a Legislative impeachment and removal of Judge Watkins from office, such as a forfeiture of his rights to a pension and rights to hold a future office.
“We conclude, based upon the West Virginia Constitution, that the constitutional power of the Legislature to remove a judicial officer by impeachment does not preclude this Court from exercising its inherent power to protect itself and the public by suspending that officer. This Court has the inherent power to inquire into the conduct of justices, judges and magistrates, and to impose any disciplinary measures short of impeachment that it deems necessary to preserve and enhance public confidence in the judiciary.”
In a press release issued with the opinion, court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy said Watkins’ removal from the state payroll began effective immediately. In December, Watkins notified the court he was taking medical leave which allowed him to continuing collecting both a paycheck and credit for his pension.
Also, Bundy said former Mason Family Law Judge Delores J. “Jeanie” Nibert, who was appointed to hear Watkins’ cases during while on leave, will remain on the bench until a new judge is elected in 2016. After losing her bid for re-election in 2008, Nibert opened her own law office in Teays Valley.
Because of the suspension, Watkins, who was first admitted to the Bar on May 14, 1978, is prohibited from practicing law until it is lifted.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, case numbers 12-1008 and 12-0925