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Putnam family judge's punishment too severe, lawyer says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The punishment recommended for a Putnam County family court judge by the state Judicial Hearing Board is too harsh, his attorney told state Supreme Court justices Tuesday.

"The [West Virginia] Constitution is very clear that a judicial officer may be temporarily suspended, not judicially impeached, which is what it would amount to," Robert Martin said.

Family Court Judge William Watkins faces 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.

After a November hearing, the Judicial Hearing Board recommended Watkins be suspended without pay until his term ends in 2016. He has served as judge since 2003.

"You're contending this court doesn't have the power to suspend him for the remainder of his term?" Chief Justice Brent Benjamin asked Martin on Tuesday.

"It depends on how you do it," Martin said, adding that because Watkins' charges were grouped together, he should only be suspended for up to a year.

But Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti, serving as special counsel for the state Judicial Investigation Commission, told justices there's nothing in the state constitution limiting judicial suspensions, "whether it's for four hours, four years or four days."

Actually, Cipoletti told justices, Watkins could be suspended one year for each of the 33 codes of judicial conduct he violated and that the grouping was a matter of efficiency.

Cipoletti also said Watkins wouldn't be able to practice law because he would still be the family court judge, just the "suspended family court judge."

She also said the hearing board's recommendations wouldn't prevent Watkins from running for the position in the future.

Last month, Watkins took an emergency medical leave and filed paperwork in the court saying he had filed for disability retirement. At that time, he had asked the justices stay their final ruling on his suspension until his application was processed. They denied his request.

Former Family Court Judge Deloris J. Nibert was assigned to take his place.

Justice Menis Ketchum asked Martin to check personally with the state Public Employees Insurance Agency to find the date Watkins applied for disability and submit it to the court.

In addition to arguing the constitutionality of the punishment, Martin told justices that allowing complainants to speak at the conclusion of the Nov. 27 hearing in front of the Judicial Hearing Board harmed Watkins' case.

"He demanded [Watkins] turn and face him like a man," Martin said, pointing to Mark Hallburn, who was sitting in the courtroom.

Justice Robin Davis said, "I don't have a lot of sympathy, based on what I've seen from Judge Watkins and his mannerisms," but added she hoped the procedures at the hearing had been fair.

"If I was sitting there on trial for my job and someone talked to me like that, I might flip out too," Ketchum said.

At the Nov. 27 hearing, Watkins apologized for his behavior and Cipoletti and Martin jointly recommended that Watkins should be suspended for 90 days without pay, but that the suspension should be put on hold while Watkins was monitored for 90 days and underwent counseling.

However, the hearing board's recommendations concluded that Watkins' apology was "less than sincere" and included notes from an investigator that said, among other things, that Watkins "has a generally hostile manner of interacting with others ... individuals with this personality style are not very receptive to suggestions from others."

Martin told justices the hearing board was wrong to cite from the "offending psychological report" in its recommendation, as there had been two evaluations performed.

The Supreme Court will ultimately decide the case.

"This is a unique case, probably the first one of its kind our court has seen at this level," Davis said.

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


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