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Putnam family court judge apologizes for behavior

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Putnam County Family Court Judge William Watkins apologized Tuesday to the state Judicial Hearing Board for his past behavior in the courtroom.

Watkins is facing seven charges from the state Judicial Investigation Commission alleging that he delayed rulings, failed to enter domestic violence orders into the state's tracking system and screamed and cursed at litigants.

An investigation was conducted by the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel and a report given to the Judicial Investigation Commission. The commission found probable cause to believe that Watkins violated the state Code of Judicial Conduct, which establishes rules that judges are expected to uphold.

"I didn't ever intend to demean or make people feel bad and I deeply regret I did," Watkins said, while being questioned by Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti, the chief lawyer at the State Bar's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, who is serving as special counsel in the case.

"Watkins admits each and every allegation," Cipoletti told the board.

Watkins, his attorney Robert Martin and Cipoletti presented the hearing board with disciplinary recommendations. The board will later release its opinion on what are appropriate disciplinary actions and present it to the state Supreme Court, who will have the final say.

The parties jointly recommended Watkins should have a 90-day without pay suspension put on hold while he is monitored for a 90-day period. During that time, Watkins should undergo counseling, address deficiencies in his office over timeliness, availability and responsiveness and participate in six hours of judicial training, with a focus on domestic violence.

Watkins also agreed to pay nearly $18,000 for the costs associated with the investigation and court proceedings.

Cipoletti told Watkins that he had made those who appeared before him in court feel "violated," "victimized," and "degraded."

One woman who filed a complaint against Watkins had appeared before him during a domestic violence hearing.

"She told me she went to your court as a sanctuary and was victimized by you," Cipoletti said to Watkins.

"That, almost more than any other violation, hurts me the most," Watkins said, noting that he is passionate about domestic violence cases.

Robert Ray Harper Sr. "felt degraded by you. You said he was not a man," Cipoletti told Watkins.

"I apologize for degrading Mr. Harper and I regret my actions," Watkins said.

Watkins screamed at Harper, who apparently hadn't paid child support, and threw him in jail despite having a prosthetic leg, heart disease, bleeding ulcers, high blood pressure, scoliosis, arthritis and bursitis, according to the complaint. Watkins cited him for contempt and put him in jail, where he contracted tuberculosis, according to the complaint.

Harper was at the hearing Tuesday and addressed Watkins.

"I was cursed and threatened," Harper told board members and Watkins. "You just don't treat people like that."

Watkins, who has been a judge in Putnam County since 2003, said he believes counseling will help him manage stress that's resulted from an overwhelming caseload and health problems.

Another charge stemmed from a complaint filed by Mark Halburn, operator of the website Putnamlive.com. Halburn said in his complaint that 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.

Halburn addressed Watkins in court on Tuesday and called for his resignation.

"He should be removed from the bench like he threw people out of his courtroom," Halburn said.

Watkins vowed to change his behavior.

"There's no more stressful job [than] as a family court judge and I have to accept it and deal with it," he said.

Despite the stress from the position, Watkins said he'd like to continue as judge.

"I'd like to have the opportunity to correct those mistakes ... I hope to be able to prove I can take the recommendations of this court and be a better judge," he said.Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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