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Putnam judge suspended for remainder of term

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Putnam County Family Court judge has been suspended without pay until the end of his term in 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

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

He has served as a family court judge since 2002.

In front of the Supreme Court in February, Watkins' attorney argued that the suspension until the end of his term was unconstitutional because it amounted to impeachment, which could only be done by the Legislature.

The court wrote in its opinion, however, that the West Virginia Constitution supports the suspension because Watkins wouldn't be prevented from running for the position in the future. Also, the state constitution gives the court the right to remove Watkins to "foster public confidence in the judiciary and to preserve its integrity."

"The sanctions recommended by the Board come nowhere close to the sanctions that would result from a Legislative impeachment and removal of Judge Watkins from office, such as a forfeiture of his rights to a pension and rights to hold future office," Justice Menis Ketchum wrote in the court's opinion.

Ketchum wrote that the hearing board's recommendations weren't "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."

Chief Justice Brent Benjamin wrote a separate opinion concurring with the suspension.

Watkins did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, the court entered an order to keep Deloris Nibert, a former Mason County family court judge, handling Watkins' caseload. The court first appointed Nibert in December after Watkins took an emergency medical leave.

During a proceeding last year in front of the judicial hearing board, Watkins admitted to violating 24 canons of the state's judicial code of conduct.

Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury filed an expedited ethics complaint against Watkins in July last year after discovering Watkins had allegedly failed repeatedly to rule on cases even after having been ordered to do so by a Putnam Circuit Court judge. Canterbury's complaint also noted Watkins had failed to enter domestic violence orders into the state's tracking system.

On Aug. 31, the Ethics Commission filed five additional charges against Watkins. Those were based on its investigation of complaints from people who appeared in front of Watkins, and primarily involved the judge's behavior in hearings, including allegations of shouting and profanity.

One dealt with a 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 posted on the Internet.

Sharon Stinson's complaint resulted in a charge over Watkins' comments during 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 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.

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?

"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. According to the complaint, Halburn said that after he brought 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.

Ketchum wrote in Tuesday's order that the court recognizes judges are human and can get angry or annoyed, "But 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.

"The excuse by Judge Watkins that he likes to 'use earthy language at times to make a point' with certain litigants does not excuse his use of profanity and threats, but rather demonstrates his lack of impartiality," the order states.

"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."

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


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