Putnam Family Judge Watkins accepts discipline and promises to improve
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Putnam County Family Court Judge William Watkins, who has been under fire for the way he treats people in his courtroom, testified at a hearing Tuesday that he wants to remain in his position. He also vowed to improve his court and his behavior.
Watkins was charged with misconduct after five individuals complained that he harassed them in his courtroom and that he didn't handle domestic violence orders promptly.
The judge apologized to that preacher, Arthur Hage, in the hearing Tuesday and said he knew his behavior was unacceptable.
"I believe the 10 years I've served I've done an outstanding job and also believe I have made mistakes," Watkins said. "And I'd like the opportunity to correct those mistakes."
His statement came before the West Virginia Judicial Hearing Board, where evidence supporting the formal charges against him was presented. But basically, Watkins and Judicial Counsel Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti agreed to all of the complaints against him and to recommended sanctions.
"Do you believe your conduct was in violation of the rules of the Judiciary?" Cipoletti asked him.
"Yes," Watkins responded.
"I never did intend to demean or make people feel bad," he said. "And I deeply regret it.
The discipline includes a 90-day suspension without pay and Watkins' reimbursement of the $17,759 investigation cost. The suspension, however, would be stayed providing he agrees to be monitored and supervised by the Judiciary.
Watkins said during the hearing that he felt the sanctions were fair. The hearing board members will now debate whether to recommend those sanctions or not and present a written decision to the state Supreme Court. That court will make a final decision on Watkins' discipline and future.
Watkins said he has some health concerns, anger control issues and worries about his wife's disability. He said those issues, together with the high stress of family court cases, means he needs to learn ways to cope and handle himself better.
Watkins said he has identified a counselor to help him do that.
Even so, he said the five formal complaints against him that were examined by the investigation committee were "the exception rather than the rule."
"But I need to deal with all cases," he said. "I simply need to achieve a balance. No cases are beyond the pale."
As he has in the past, Watkins referenced his "massive court docket" that requires him to hear as many as 35 cases in a day. That caseload, he has said, prevents him and his staff from tending to matters such as responding to phone calls and entering domestic violence protective orders promptly.
The judge said he and his staff have already implemented a new system for dealing with those issues.
"I understand the issues and have taken steps to correct them," he said.
Cipoletti told hearing examiner Lawrence Miller that Watkins admitted to all of the allegations against him.
She said, "Judge Watkins admits to each and every allegation and to each and every code violation alleged. He has admitted his conduct amounted to a pattern of misconduct and agreed to the discipline."
Although some Putnam residents with complaints against the judge were not permitted to speak, Miller did allow two people whose names are included in the formal charges to address the court.
Bob Harper said he felt Watkins was abusive to him when handling his child support case.
"He should be punished for what he put me through," Harper said. "He owes me an apology.
"He cursed me, threatened me and told me I was not a man," said Harper, an amputee. "He is not going to change. I don't believe him."
Mark Halburn, who writes a website called PutnamLIVE, has been a critic of Watkins. He said he mishandled his case also and said he thought Watkins should not have been allowed to remain on the bench while under investigation.
"You do not belong on the bench," he told Watkins, after asking the judge to turn around and face him. "I strongly recommend that you immediately resign and allow a judge capable of handling the stress take over."
The judicial committee expects to make a decision about the sanctions within two weeks and send it on to the Supreme Court, which will make a final determination in the case. Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4832. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/CherylCaswel