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Putnam family judge faces new charges

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Putnam County Family Court Judge William Watkins faces five more charges from the state Judicial Investigation Commission, primarily arising from the judge's conduct in hearings, including claims of shouting and use of profanity.

The charges come on the heels of two charges filed last month by the commission, alleging that Watkins failed to rule on motions, even after circuit judges told him to, and didn't enter domestic violence orders into the state's tracking system.

Watkins was served with the new charges Tuesday, and has 30 days to respond. He could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

The judge hasn't formally responded to the earlier charges, but told the Gazette an overwhelming caseload was to blame.

The filing of a formal complaint means that an investigation has been conducted by the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel and a report given to the Judicial Investigation Commission. It also means the commission has found probable cause to believe that Watkins violated the state Code of Judicial Conduct, which establishes canons, or specific rules, that judges are expected to uphold.

 "[Watkins'] behavior exhibits a pattern and practice of an abject failure to treat litigants in his court room with the respect and dignity that the Canons require of him," according to the newest complaint.

The first charge in the complaint deals with a May 23 hearing in Arthur Hage's divorce.

Hage, a Hurricane pastor, filed a complaint against the judge after Watkins screamed at him and told him to "shut-up" during a hearing. A video of the proceedings was later posted on the Internet.

 "Despite [Watkins'] behavior in the May 23, 2012 hearing, [Watkins] did not file a motion to recuse himself in this matter until June 28, 2012," the complaint states.

Count two deals with a complaint filed on May 3 by Sharon Stinson over Watkins' comments in a divorce hearing. According to the complaint, Stinson complained about several of Watkins' statements, including a discussion of her child's father, who was also in the courtroom.

The judge said, "She picked him to have a child with." Stinson responded that it "was an accident," and Watkins replied, "Well, honey. It ain't an accident. You don't get 'em off of toilet seats. OK."

"The only curse words I uttered was to [the] effect that the father had been a 'dumb shit' when he got in trouble, for which I apologized," Watkins wrote in a response to the investigation commission, according to the complaint. 

"I use earthy language at times to make a point. Ms. Stinson disagrees with my decision. That's why we have appellate courts. There is nothing that even remotely alleges an ethics violation," Watkins said in his response. "The sad thing is that in the time I've had to take to respond to this nonsense means that four hearings now have to be postponed."

The third count filed against Watkins, alleges he again violated judicial ethics rules during a divorce hearing over Robert Ray Harper Sr.'s child support payments.

Harper, who had a pending malpractice lawsuit against the Cleveland Clinic, had been ordered to pay child support, but apparently hadn't, according to the complaint.

 Despite Harper having a prosthetic leg, heart disease, bleeding ulcers, high blood pressure, scoliosis, arthritis and bursitis, Watkins cited him for contempt and put him in jail, where he contracted tuberculosis, according to the complaint.

At one point during the hearing, Harper told the judge to contact his lawyer about some money available for child support.

"No, God damn it," Watkins said.

"Don't cuss me, sir," Harper said, to which the judge replied, "I'm gonna cuss you 'cause you came into my courtroom and lied," according to a transcript in the complaint.

Harper said he didn't lie, and Watkins replied, "OK. Well, you're gonna sit in that jail until you pay her the money." The judge later said, "Take his ass into custody. I'm tired of it. Now you call up your lawyer and you find out how to get your butt out and that's to sign over the money. Got me? Great."

Another count in the complaint against Watkins deals with a woman who appeared before him during a domestic violence hearing on Aug. 25, 2011.

During the hearing, according to the complaint, Watkins asked the woman, "Then, why are you shooting off your fat mouth about what happened?"

The woman tells Watkins that "I think Spaulding overruled you for a reason," referring to former Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding.

"Shut up! You stupid woman. Can't even act properly. One more word out of you that you aren't asked a question you're out of here and you will be found in direct contempt of court and I will fine you appropriately. So, shut your mouth," Watkins said, according to the complaint.

The final charge arose after Mark Halburn, operator of the website Putnamlive.com, filed a complaint against Watkins. Halburn said the judge failed to recuse himself from Halburn's divorce case, despite having represented his wife in another matter.

 Halburn, according to the complaint, said after bringing the conflict of interest to Watkins attention, the judge responded in a Dec. 15, 2011 letter. "Every other witness describes you as rude, obnoxious, loud, unprofessional and generally acting like the south end of a north-bound horse. I chose to believe them," Watkins wrote, according to the charges.

 In all five counts, the complaint from the state Judicial Investigation Commission alleges Watkins violated a number of the state's rules for judicial conduct.

Among others listed in the complaint, Watkins allegedly violated a canon stating judges will "uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary" and "avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge's activities."

After Watkins files a response to the charges, the state Judicial Hearing Board will conduct a hearing, according to the complaint.

 After the hearing, at which the charges against the judge would have to be proved by "clear and convincing evidence," the board will file its recommendation regarding sanctions, if any, with the Supreme Court.  The high court will then decide if any sanctions will be imposed on the judge.

 According to the rules of judicial disciplinary procedure, sanctions may include admonishment, reprimand, censure, suspension without pay for up to one year, or a fine of up to $5,000.

 The board could recommend other disciplinary measures, including probation, restitution, limitation on the nature of extent of future practice, supervised practice or and community services.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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