CHARLESTON – Taking a cue from a popular 1960s science fiction television show, the state Supreme Court chief justice says there’s danger in the rationale his fellow justices used to issue a term-ending suspension for Putnam Family Law Judge William M. “Chip” Watkins III.
In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said he “completely agree[s]”with the court’s decision rendered March 26 suspending Watkins until Dec. 31, 2016. Watkins’ “egregious” acts, Benjamin said, justified the punishment.
In November, Watkins admitted to 24 violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct stemming from not only his use of foul and abrasive language toward litigants in his courtroom, but also his failure to timely issue a decision in one divorce case and upload domestic violence protective orders to the court’s registry.
The following month, citing a lack of sincerity and remorse, the court’s Judicial Hearing Board recommended, among other things, Watkins be suspended until the end of his term.
Despite agreeing with the outcome, Benjamin distanced himself from how his four colleagues arrived at it. The need to cite “inherent judicial powers” in Watkins is “as unnecessary as it is unprecedented.”
“While I have the utmost respect for my colleagues and the professionalism of our current Court and share their belief that the admittedly harsh sanction in this case is fully justified,” Benjamin said, “I fear how a highly partisan or polarized future Court might misuse this expansive new precedent.”
In his opinion, Benjamin took exception to the syllabus point eight in the majority opinion written by Justice Menis E. Ketchum which reads, “[t]his 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.”
The reliance on citing “inherent power,” to suspend Watkins, Benjamin says, completely overlooks the express power the court has under Article VIII, Section 8 of the state Constitution to temporarily suspend any judicial officer for “any violation.”
Also, he says the court set the precedent for issuing consecutive one-year suspensions in the Tommy Toler case. In December 2005, despite his acquittal on related criminal charges and re-election in November 2004, the court ordered Toler, a Wayne County magistrate, suspended for four years retroactive to the previous July.
He was accused of demanding sexual favors from women who had cases before him.
Though there are times when it may become necessary to invoke inherent judicial powers, judicial disciplinary cases are not among them, Benjamin said. The court does not have unlimited powers and should strive to always operate within the boundaries expressed by the constitution, he said.
“If the judiciary’s only boundary is the boundary it provides for itself,” Benjamin said, “is there any boundary at all?”