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Putnam family court not busiest

Putnam County's family court judge, facing formal charges from the Judicial Investigation Commission, is not the busiest in the state.

Several other counties have more cases filed, and a number of judges have higher caseloads than William "Chip" Watkins, according to figures from the Supreme Court.  

Watkins contends he is overwhelmed by the number of cases he has to handle in Putnam County, and has said he holds more than 2,500 hearings a year. Watkins has asked the Supreme Court for help with that caseload.

The controversial judge was initially charged Aug. 9 for failing to rule on cases promptly enough and for not entering domestic violence orders into the state's tracking system. More charges were filed against him a month later concerning his

alleged abusive treatment of people in his courtroom.  

Watkins said he holds up to 40 hearings a day and handles more divorces than any other family court judge in West Virginia.

According to the 2011 West Virginia Court System Annual Report, of the 37,325 domestic cases filed in the state last year, 944 were filed in Putnam County. Watkins, the only family court judge in that county, hears them all.

He's not the only one with that kind of caseload — Fayette County's single family court judge heard 974 cases last year; Marion County's sole family court judge heard 869 cases and Mingo County's only family court judge heard 1,085 cases.

Cabell County's two family court judges handled 2,176 domestic cases in 2011 — more than 1,000 cases per judge. In Wood County, the two family court judges handled 2,123 cases between them, also more than 1,000 per judge.

In Kanawha County, five family court judges took on 4,362 cases last year — about 872 cases per judge.

And while Watkins says the number of cases in Putnam County is increasing as the population there rises, his number of cases from 2010 actually dropped slightly — by 0.6 percent.

In comparison Harrison County saw more than a 21 percent increase in cases filed, McDowell County shows a nearly 23 percent increase over 2010, Morgan County's rate rose more than 45 percent and Wirt County's cases increased more than 50 percent.

West Virginia has 45 family court judges in 27 circuits. They serve eight-year terms.  

In his detailed formal response to the first charges, Watkins did agree to comply with the court in "making every effort to ensure that all orders are timely reviewed and entered into the court's record."

He also said he would make certain that domestic violence protective orders are entered into the registry the same day of the hearing and agreed that he and his staff would attend a training and education program to be sure they are in compliance.

Also, Watkins responded that he and his staff would make "every effort to ensure that all phone calls are either answered and/or screened and to the extent possible are returned to all litigants, attorneys or court personnel within 24 hours."

The issue of Watkins' compliance with the domestic violence protective order registry came up also in March 2009.

He responded to Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury, "Wonderful idea! When do we hire the extra clerical people? We can't even answer the damn phone half the time, so I was curious where all this extra time to scan, etc. is going to come from.

"Is this one of those parallel universe things?" he asked.

With his offering of a remedial plan to correct some of the problems in his court, Watkins asked that the charges against him be dismissed and that he not be sanctioned. He still has not responded to the second group of charges, which involve several instances of allegedly cursing and losing his temper in the courtroom.

Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at cherylc@dailymail.com or 304-348-4832.


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