Putnam judge has outburst in court
CHARLESTON, W.VA. - An online video records a Putnam family law judge screaming at a preacher involved in a divorce case in his courtroom.
The 16-minute video, uploaded to YouTube on Tuesday, is an official court recording of a divorce hearing for Arthur and Lillian Hage before Family Law Judge William "Chip" Watkins. The hearing occurred about 10 a.m. May 23, according to the video's timestamp.
The Hages were in court because Arthur refused to sign papers allowing Lillian to sell their home. Watkins is the first to speak on the video.
"Before we get started, Mr. Hage, if you say one word out of turn, you're going to jail. Do you understand me?
"After we closed here, you went out and talked to a reporter, five seconds after you left here despite my admonition. This morning I now see an article from your little buddy Smith with a picture of my home, my home on the front page."
Watkins said Wednesday he was referring to an article that appeared on a news website just before his hearing with the Hages.
In the video, Watkins begins to scream so loudly the audio recording is distorted.
"Shut up! Don't you speak! My wife is disabled! She's there alone! You disgusting piece of ..."
Watkins eventually apologized, saying he was too angry to "be appropriate" in the case. He said he would step down from the case.
"Your honor, we're just concerned about losing the house here," Lillian Hage's attorney says.
Watkins then announced he would not recuse himself.
The judge has since changed his mind.
"I've thought about that since that incident. I hate to impose something like this on somebody else, but I think I probably should get out of it," Watkins told the Daily Mail.
He said he already had written a request to the State Supreme Court asking it to recuse him from future hearings with the Hages. He was not sure if he had mailed the request.
Watkins said he did not recuse himself at the time of the May 23 hearing because the photo of his home ran "immediately before."
"The next time I saw Mr. Hage, I let him know I didn't appreciate that," Watkins said.
"Like any judge, I'm human, I get angry. I think my reputation is a fairly calm demeanor," he said. "But once my family is threatened, that's not part of the job."
Watkins said he considered the PutnamLive.com site's publication of a photo of his house as a threat.
"I just thought that's way beyond the pale. My house has been vandalized four times now. It seems to me it's an incitement for people with a grudge against the family court: here's your target, folks," he said.
In the recording Watkins repeatedly said Smith, the reporter, was Arthur Hage's "friend."
Hage denied Wednesday that he had any relationship with the reporter.
The judge would not discuss any other part of the hearing, however, even to confirm he remembered shouting at Arthur Hage.
"Those hearings are confidential and I'm not allowed to discuss those kinds of cases," he said.
Arthur Hage said he would like to see Watkins removed from the bench.
"He was mad enough in that courtroom to kill me. He treated me like an animal. Worse than an animal. Worse than a dog," he said.
"He's been cussing me and cussing my wife since the beginning of this. The man prejudges you before you could even start. He does this to everybody he doesn't like."
Hage, who has been a preacher for 40 years and currently pastors three churches, believes Watkins doesn't like him because of his religion.
"I think it's because I'm a minister and I'm a Christian and I love the Lord. What else could it be?" he said.
In the video, Watkins repeatedly threatens to send Hage to jail.
The minister said, "He's already told me he's putting me in jail for life. What have I done?
"Something's got to be done, in keeping things from the public. This is not right. We're in a free country, we're not in communist China."
Hage said he did not upload the video to YouTube but gave a copy of it to the news site.
"I don't even know how to use a computer," Hage said.
Although proceedings in family court are supposed to be confidential, Lisa Tackett, director of family court services at the state Supreme Court, said all parties involved could request a copy of a hearing video.
Tackett could not make specific comments about the video but confirmed Wednesday morning she had watched it and passed it on to her boss, court administrator Steve Canterbury.
"Because this is a current and ongoing case, I can't comment on the details of the case, or the specifics of the case," she said.
Tackett said she could not comment about Watkins' conduct as that eventually could become the subject of a court case. Judges accused of misconduct are brought before the State Supreme Court's Judicial Investigation Commission.
Canterbury said he didn't see the video until Wednesday afternoon and watched only "a few unfortunate moments."
"It speaks for itself, or maybe I should say it shouts for itself," he said. "On the surface, it seems like a very bad moment for the judge and for everyone in that courtroom."
He said he could not comment on Watkins' behavior because he was not even sure the video was authentic. Canterbury said the video appeared to be authentic, but he wanted to check the official court records.
"I think it would be wrong of me to rush into something that has such potential consequences. It's too early, it's too quick and it's all on the surface at this point," he said.
If Canterbury were to file a complaint against Watkins with the Judicial Investigation Commission, it would be considered an "extraordinary complaint" and would expedite the investigation process.
Canterbury's most recent complaint was against Carol Fouty, a Kanawha magistrate accused of several ethics violations.
Watkins said he was not concerned about a potential Supreme Court investigation.
"If I've done something wrong, I'll take responsibility for it," he said.