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.