Supreme Court suspends Putnam judge until term ends
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Supreme Court has ruled that Putnam County Family Court Judge William "Chip" Watkins be suspended without pay until the end of his term in 2016.
The decision, handed down Tuesday, also directs that he be censured for 24 counts of misconduct and pay the costs of more than $17,000 associated with the investigation and prosecution.
Deloris Nibert, who was appointed family court judge during his absence, has now been appointed to finish out his term.
The court acted on the Judicial Hearing Board's December recommendation, but Watkins had objected to that penalty, saying it violated his constitutional rights.
Watkins admitted his misconduct, apologized and agreed to a 90-day suspension that included counseling and an overhaul of the way he and his staff conducted the court.
But the Hearing Board decided a harsher sanction was called for, and Supreme Court justices agreed.
The Hearing Board said it believed Watkins failed to maintain high standards of conduct and integrity and failed to maintain respect and decorum in the courtroom.
The Supreme Court's decision reads, in part, "The Judicial Hearing Board's recommendation that Judge Watkins be suspended from office is not to punish the judge for his extensive wrongdoing, but to relieve from the bench a person whose further service will be detrimental to the judicial branch of government.
"The Hearing Board found that Judge Watkins and his staff repeatedly failed to conform to the statutes, rules and regulations governing the family courts," it reads. "Rather than take corrective action, Judge Watkins supported the misconduct of his staff."
That misconduct includes failing to enter domestic violence protective orders in a timely way — as long as nine months. The court cited one instance where a party in a domestic case was arrested for following the victim with a firearm.
The decision also cites instances of Watkins' screaming at and threatening parties in his courtroom and often exploding in fits of anger.
"The Hearing Board determined that Judge Watkins demonstrated a preference for using threats, intimidation, profanity and shouting rather than the tools available to judges, including civil and criminal contempt, to deal with admittedly difficult litigants."
A video of a divorce case involving a Putnam County pastor was circulated online and showed Watkins screaming "shut up" and promising to jail the man. He said he was too angry to handle the case but then did not recuse himself.
The justices wrote in their decision, "A judge owes a duty to treat lawyers and litigants courteously, to hear them patiently, to study their arguments and evidence conscientiously, and to decide their cases promptly.
"When a judge insults, ridicules or disparages counsel, the parties, jurors or witnesses, it is clearly misconduct," they said. 'It is never appropriate for a judge to become a combatant with a party.
"Participants will never accept that a decision rendered by a combatant is fair. A pattern of judicial discourtesy like that exhibited by Judge Watkins represents a profound threat to the integrity of the judiciary, and consequently demands a strong response."
Watkins requested in January that proceedings against him be delayed because he was applying for disability and retirement.
At a February Supreme Court hearing, the justices asked his attorney, Robert Martin, for the date he had made that application. Martin said Watkins had not yet filed.
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at email@example.com or 304-348-4832.