Putnam County family court judge charged
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Supreme Court served a Putnam County family court judge with formal charges Friday, alleging that he 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.
Family Court Judge William Watkins has been on the bench in Putnam County since 2003.
Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said Friday that, on July 17, he filed an extraordinary complaint, which speeds up an investigation, against Watkins with the state Judicial Investigation Commission.
Last month, Canterbury said he would not file a complaint against Watkins after a video was posted online of the judge screaming at a Putnam pastor during a divorce hearing.
Canterbury said Friday evening, though, that he changed his mind after finding out that Watkins did not comply with three rulings from circuit judges in Putnam County.
"Case law says a family court judge has to respond to mandamus judgments from circuit judges," Canterbury said. "I didn't know about [Watkins not responding]. That's unethical, so I filed it."
According to the charges from the Supreme Court, 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 finally ruled in the case last month, after the Supreme Court threatened contempt proceedings against him.
Watkins allegedly told an investigator that circuit judges "had no authority over the family court" and they did not have the authority to "compel me to do anything."
According to the charges from the Supreme Court, Watkins violated the part of the state Code of Judicial Conduct that states, "A judge shall uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary."
In a fax sent Tuesday to the lawyer overseeing the case, Watkins said the circuit court "has no jurisdiction to run my docket." He also blamed the lawyers in the case for not following his instructions.
According to a Supreme Court decision from 2003, circuit court judges do 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.
During the investigation into Watkins' delayed rulings, new allegations surfaced.
In March 2009, Watkins reportedly sent a letter to officials saying, "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 state domestic violence database.
The charges allege several instances where Watkins had to be asked repeatedly to hand over orders. In one allegation, staff members with the Domestic Violence Registry repeatedly asked Watkins to upload an order in a case where the respondent had a firearm and previously had been arrested for following the petitioner with a loaded firearm.
"After several requests from Registry staff, the order was eventually uploaded," according to the charges.
In another case, a domestic violence order wasn't uploaded to the directory until nearly nine months later, according to the charges.
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 has 30 days after the formal charges to officially respond to the Judicial Investigation Commission. He did not return a telephone call Friday evening.
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.