WINFIELD, W.Va. -- A Putnam County Family Court judge says he is "infuriated" by ethics charges filed against him in the West Virginia Supreme Court, and said he has asked the court for help with an overwhelming caseload to no avail.
Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury filed an expedited ethics complaint against Judge William Watkins in late July after discovering Watkins had allegedly failed repeatedly to rule on cases even after having been ordered to do so by Putnam circuit court judges. The formal charges, served Friday, also claim Watkins failed to enter domestic violence orders into the state's tracking system.
Watkins, the only Family Court judge in Putnam County, said Saturday at times he is forced to hold up to 40 hearings a day and has repeatedly asked for help from the Supreme Court to handle his "overwhelming" caseload.
"This is really about caseloads," Watkins said. "To say that I've been unethical is just infuriating."
Canterbury's complaint was investigated by the state Judicial Investigation Commission and led to the formal charges, which allege Watkins did not rule for about two years on a motion to split up property in a divorce case, even after being directed to make a ruling -- once by then-Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding and twice by Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers.
Watkins, who has served as a judge since 2003, finally ruled in that case last month, after the state Supreme Court threatened contempt proceedings against him.
"I thought it was my decision to make. If I take four hours to do your order, that's as many as 15 or 16 hearings that don't get held," he said, noting the lawyers never followed his instructions to prepare an order for him to sign.
According to a Supreme Court decision in 2003, circuit court judges have authority over family court judges in West Virginia. In that case, the Supreme Court overturned a decision in Berkeley County, in which a judge had ruled that circuit judges could not give orders to family court judges.
Watkins said a 2006 report from the National Center for State Courts shows he was handling the caseload of 1 1/2 judges, "and Putnam County has grown since then."
"I do over 2,500 hearings a year. In 2011, I had 430 divorces -- the highest in West Virginia," Watkins said, referring to the number of cases assigned to one judge.
During the investigation into Watkins' delayed rulings, new allegations surfaced.
The charges allege several instances where Watkins had to be asked repeatedly to enter orders into the state domestic violence database.
In March 2009, Watkins reportedly sent a letter to officials saying, in part, "His office did not have time" to comply with a new program that would require family court judges to immediately enter all domestic violence-related orders to the database, according to the complaint.
At the time, family courts were in the process of taking over the domestic violence database from the State Police, and Watkins said his first comment to the state Supreme Court was in order to do that, "we need more people."
"Their answer was 'do you need more training?' No, we don't need training, [my staff] is great at what they do, it's just we're killing them," Watkins said of his two staff members.
On the days the family court devotes to domestic violence cases, Watkins said, he only has time to spend 15 minutes per hearing.
"And that's to solve the most complicated, dangerous cases with people who have no lawyers. So I have to be judge, jury, in some cases lawyer, counselor, advisor -- we just don't have the resources," he said.
"That's what's most upsetting, [the state Supreme Court] is implying I don't consider domestic violence a priority, and anybody will tell you for 10 years I have been preaching that and preaching that and preaching that. Those cases and our children are my two number one priorities."
In one case, according to the charges, a domestic violence order wasn't uploaded to the directory until nearly nine months later.
Being understaffed with a large caseload has led Watkins to get frustrated at times, he admits.
At the beginning of July, court administrator Canterbury had said he would not file a complaint against Watkins after a video was posted online of the judge screaming at Arthur Hage, a pastor in Putnam, during a divorce hearing.
"I'm still embarrassed about my tirade against Pastor Hage," Watkins said. "I come across like a lunatic."
Watkins has 30 days after the formal charges were served to officially respond to the Judicial Investigation Commission.
Teresa Tarr, attorney for the Judicial Investigation Commission, recused herself from the case because her secretary has a divorce case in front of Watkins. Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti, the chief lawyer at the State Bar's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, has been named special counsel in the case.
Watkins said numerous lawyers have already offered to defend him.
"I'll be honest, I cried like a baby when lawyers came up and said 'this wouldn't stand, you shouldn't be treated like this'," Watkins said. "I never intended to disrespect anyone."
Reach Kate White at kate.wh...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.