WV Supreme Court: 'screaming judge' suspended for rest of term - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV Supreme Court suspends 'screaming judge' for rest of term

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A temporary suspension that covers the time remaining on a Putnam County Family Court judge does not amount to impeachment, West Virginia Supreme Court justices recently decided.

The Judicial Hearing Board handed down an order Dec. 3, saying Judge William Watkins violated canons of the judicial code of conduct.The board recommended Watkins be suspended without pay until the end of his term in 2016 and be censured on each of his 24 violations.

The court had charged Watkins with failing to return a ruling on a divorce case following a circuit court order. The state Supreme Court then ordered Watkins to rule on the case.  

The Supreme Court also charged Watkins with not updating the domestic violence registry.

By an administrative order issued that day, the West Virginia Supreme Court appointed former Family Court Judge Deloris J. Nibert  to continue presiding in Watkins' place throughout his suspension.  

Justice Menis Ketchum delivered the opinion of the court, adopting the board's recommendations.

In a February oral argument hearing, Watkins argued his temporary suspension was not temporary at all and qualified as judicial impeachment.

"The Constitution is very clear," Watkins attorney Bob Martin said in the Feb. 5 oral argument hearing. "A judicial officer may be temporarily suspended — not judicially impeached. That's what this would amount to."  

However, Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti, who represented the board, said his suspension could have been a year for each violation and the statute does not define "temporary" because judges' terms vary.

West Virginia Supreme Court justices disagreed that Watkins' suspension would qualify as impeachment because the charges carry "substantially different consequences."

"For one, a state official who is impeached is not only removed from office but is also disqualified from holding any future office of honor trust or profit under the state," the opinion states. "For another, a state official who is impeached forfeits all rights to a state pension."

The opinion states the board did not recommend Watkins' impeachment. The court does have the authority to impose a four-year suspension, the opinion continued.

"But it is incongruous for Judge Watkins to suggest that a suspension — whether for four days, four months, or four years — commensurate with the end of a judges' term is unconstitutional, while accepting that such a suspension in the beginning or middle of a judge's term would be constitutionally acceptable," the opinion states.

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin agreed with the decision to Watkins' suspension but expressed other concerns.

He said the majority's argument overlooks the "any violation" language and since there is "no limitation on the number of violations which this court may find from a given judicial officer's ongoing course of ethical misconduct" there is "no limitation on the number of temporary suspensions which may be aggregated together for multiple violations."

Benjamin said the majority's syllabus point "places no limitation absent impeachment on this court's assertion of inherent power despite to expressly constitutional limitation to the contrary."

"While I have the utmost respect for my colleagues and the professionalism of our current court and share their belief that the admittedly harsh sanction in this case is fully justified, I fear how a highly partisan or polarized future court might misuse this expansive new precedent."