Putnam family court judge Watkins contests ethics punishment
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The West Virginia Supreme Court was asked Tuesday not to accept a recommended four-year-suspension of Putnam Family Court Judge William Watkins.
Watkins did not attend the hearing, but his attorney, Robert Martin, contends that sanction against the judge is illegal. He said the board could constitutionally suspend the judge for only up to a year.
Martin asked the court, however, to accept a 90-day suspension Watkins agreed to in negotiations with Special Judicial Disciplinary Counsel Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti.
Watkins has admitted he failed to file domestic orders in a timely way and sometimes was verbally abusive to litigants in his courtroom. He admitted to 33 violations of the judicial code of conduct.
At a hearing in December, the Judicial Hearing Board was told of the agreed-upon 90-day suspension, which called for supervision, education and counseling for the judge.
But the board decided to suspend the judge for the remainder of his term, saying he didn't appear willing or capable of changing his ways. Watkins objected to that penalty.
Cipoletti told the justices on Tuesday that while the ordered sanction of the Judiciary Hearing Board was harsher than that recommendation, the board's action was within the law.
"The violations cited focus on cases with litigants, but there are other numerous cases," Cipoletti said. "The judge testified about his contrition, he said all the right things, but this case comes down to credibility, and the members of the board did not believe the judge."
Mark Halburn, who operates a website called Putnam Live, was allowed to speak against Watkins at that December hearing, along with a few others named in the violations.
Although instructed to address the board only, Halburn challenged Watkins to "turn around face me like a man."
Watkins swiveled in his chair, crossed his arms and glared at Halburn. It was that action, seen as contentious, that was cited by the board in its decision to order a much harsher sanction against the judge.
Halburn also attended Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing.
Watkins' attorney cited a lack of precedence in the case.
"He faced 33 charges as one, all at once in one proceeding," Martin told the justices. "He may be temporarily suspended for up to one year. But the board decided they were going to slam back with suspension for the rest of his term.
"There is no other case where such a suspension has been upheld," Martin said. "I looked. And I cannot find a case with similar language."
Meanwhile, Watkins announced recently that he was taking a medical leave of absence and would apply for medical disability through the state. Another judge has been appointed to handle his docket.
Justices Menis Ketchum and Brent Benjamin questioned that decision, calling it inconsistent with his desire to remain on the bench.
Watkins is also unhappy that portions of his sealed psychological evaluation were made public when Halburn discussed them at a public hearing and when the board cited aspects of it in its written decision.
"I have a problem with the way the case has been handled," Martin said. "It has been a public free-for-all."
Cipoletti said, "I think what irritates the public is that this case is 'special.' It is not special. This case is not different."
Cipoletti said she believed the 90-day suspension was a reasonable penalty "at the time."
"But at that hearing he was confrontational," she said. "And angry as soon as he got off the witness stand."
Ketchum said he might have acted in a similar way if faced with criticism in a courtroom from a loud and contentious witness.
"No, you wouldn't have, your honor," said Cipoletti. "You would have had a stoic face on and not reacted."
In Martin's written brief to the Supreme Court, he writes, "Judge Watkins made some mistakes. Judge Watkins took ownership of those mistakes.
"Unfortunately what he received was a lack of procedural due process; a lack of substantive due process; disclosure of his private and protected psychological records to the public and the media and an unconstitutional sanction."
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4832.