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Judicial board wants Putnam family court judge suspended until 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Judicial Hearing Board wants a family court judge in Putnam County suspended without pay until his term ends in 2016.

The hearing board's recommendations for Judge William Watkins were released today. 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.

At a hearing last week, Watkins apologized for his behavior. His lawyer and the head of the State Bar's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, who prosecuted the case, jointly recommended that Watkins should be suspended for 90 days without pay, but the suspension should be put on hold while Watkins was monitored for 90 days and underwent counseling.

The state Judicial Hearing Board opted for a much harsher recommendation. The board's recommendation now goes to the state Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide Watkins' punishment.

Watkins did not return a phone call on Tuesday. He has until Jan. 2 to respond to the hearing board's recommendations.

The hearing board wrote in its recommendation that Watkins' "demeanor during the testimony made it appear to the Judicial Hearing Board that [Watkins] was less than sincere."

The board noted that at the end of the hearing, when complainants were given a chance to address Watkins, one of the complainants, Mark Hallburn, asked Watkins to turn and face him. The chairman of the hearing board said that was an improper request and told Hallburn to continue.

"Despite this directive by the Chairperson and despite what appeared to be the advice of his counsel that he not do so, [Watkins] turned in his chair, leaned back, crossed his arms, and glared at [Hallburn] in an angry and confrontational manner, which stood in stark contrast to [Watkins'] demeanor during his own testimony," the judicial hearing board wrote.

Last week's hearing came after an investigation by the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which gave its report 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.

At last week's hearing, Watkins - who was first elected a family judge in 2002 -- admitted to all of the charges, and blamed stress from a large caseload and health problems for his behavior.

The recommendations released Tuesday included notes from an investigator's evaluation of Watkins. The investigator said that Watkins "said he is angry and that what has happened to him is unjustified because 'they have an unrealistic notion of what it's like to be a Family Court Judge.' There are limited options to do with litigations."

The investigator reported, according to the hearing board, that Watkins said, "'it's all going to go away. They will realize I'm the best family judge in West Virginia, without any question ... The Supreme Court is guilty of kowtowing to public opinion and showing a total lack of appreciation.'"

According to the recommendations, the investigator said that Watkins "appears to be rather rigid, stubborn, and angry at others"; that his complaints of health problems seemed "vague or unusual"; and that his possibly "delusional symptoms should be evaluated."

The evaluator went on to say Watkins is "suspicious of others," "views the world as a threatening place, sees himself as having been unjustly blamed for others' problems, and feels that he is getting a raw deal out of life ... He is intensely angry at others and feels that they do not understand him ...

"He has a generally hostile manner of interacting with others ... individuals with this personality style are not very receptive to suggestions from others."

The evaluator also called Watkins impulsive and argumentative, and that "without an appropriate and timely intervention, more serious physical, emotional or behavioral issues may emerge."

In their recommendations, the hearing board wrote that Watkins demonstrated "contempt for authority," "a lack of diligence," and "a lack of courtesy, civility, decorum and judicial comportment in the conduct of hearings," among other things.

Watkins said during the hearing he would participate in counseling and agreed to pay almost $18,000 for the cost of the investigation. The hearing board recommended that Watkins pay that amount.Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723. Webbed: yes


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