Putnam family court judge facing more charges
A controversial Putnam County Family Court judge is facing five new charges alleging he violated the judicial code of conduct by using profanity and berating people who appeared before him in his courtroom.
The state Judicial Investigation Commission filed a five-count formal complaint on Aug. 31 against Putnam Family Court Judge William "Chip" Watkins III. Watkins was officially served with a copy of the charges Tuesday.
The counts stem from five separate complaints filed by individuals who say they were shouted at, cursed or disrespected by the judge in violation of the judicial canons of ethics.
The current accusations are the second set of charges filed against Watkins in recent months. In July, the commission cited Watkins for failing to rule on motions and enter domestic violence orders into the state's online tracking system.
Watkins' behavior first came under public scrutiny when a 16-minute recording of a courtroom outburst began circulating on the Internet. The video was an official court recording of a May 23 divorce hearing for Arthur and Lillian Hage.
Watkins' actions during that hearing are the basis for the first count of the new charges.
Watkins had blamed Arthur Hage, pastor of Hurricane Bible Church, for an article that appeared on a news website that featured pictures of the judge's home.
In the video, Watkins repeatedly yelled at Hage to "shut up" while he was speaking.
The complaint also says Watkins chided Hage later in the hearing, accusing him of lying under oath.
"It's a damn lie and you know it's a damn lie," Watkins said to Hage. "I'd love for your parishioners to know that the first thing you do when you swear to God to tell the truth, you come in here and tell a lie."
In a second count, Sharon Stinson accused Watkins of making inappropriate comments during an April custody hearing. During the hearing, Stinson said getting pregnant was "an accident."
"Well, honey, it ain't an accident," Watkins said. "You don't get them off of toilet seats."
Watkins later said the child's father had "got into some dumb shit," according to the complaint. As the hearing moved on, Watkins also allegedly said he didn't want to spend more time finding out "who was the biggest jackass in the operation."
After the Special Judiciary Disciplinary Counsel asked Watkins about the incident, he said he remembered only the "dumb shit" comment and had apologized for it.
"I use earthy language at times to make a point," Watkins said in his written response to the counsel.
The third count, filed by Robert Harper, stemmed from a January hearing on Harper's back child support payments.
Harper had a series of health problems and negotiated a settlement agreement for a malpractice case against Cleveland Clinic. When Harper said Watkins would have to contact his attorney to find out the status of the settlement funds, Watkins refused by saying, "No, God damn it."
He then ruled that Harper be thrown in jail for not paying child support and instructed the bailiff to remove him from the courtroom.
"Take his ass into custody," Watkins said in court. "I'm tired of it. Now you call up your lawyer and you find out how to get your butt out, and that's to sign over the money."
Harper claims he contracted tuberculosis during his incarceration at Western Regional Jail.
The fourth count was filed by Tammy Jo Lambert, who had successfully appealed one of Watkins rulings to Putnam Circuit Court. During a subsequent hearing, Watkins got angry at Lambert for "shooting off (her) fat mouth."
"Shut up! You stupid woman," Watkins said in court. "Shut your mouth. You know I hate it when people are just acting out of sheer spite and stupidity."
The final count was filed by Mark Hallburn. Hallburn alleged Watkins refused to recuse himself from Hallburn's divorce case, even though the judge had represented Hallburn's wife in a bankruptcy case.
Hallburn said Watkins later sent him an inappropriate letter in response to his recusal request.
"I have reviewed your complaint, and your perspective seems to be held by you," Watkins' letter said. "Every other witness describes you as rude, obnoxious, loud, unprofessional and generally acting like the south end of a north-bound horse. I choose to believe them."
The Judicial Investigation Commission said the allegations indicate Watkins has shown a pattern of failing to maintain high standards of conduct and integrity and an abject failure to maintain decorum and treat litigants with respect and dignity.
Watkins has 30 days to respond to the allegations. Family court staff said Watkins was referring requests for comment to Charleston attorney Andrew McQueen.
McQueen hadn't seen the charges as of Thursday afternoon. He declined to comment on the accusations but said he planned to file a defense on Watkins' behalf in the next 30 days.
Once the response is filed, the Judicial Hearing Board will hold a hearing. If the board finds enough evidence to support the charges, Watkins could face a variety sanctions.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.