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Supreme Court hears appeal of "screaming judge" suspension

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Would a disciplinary "temporary suspension" that covers the time remaining on a judge's term amount to impeachment?

That's the question the state Supreme Court is considering in the case of the Putnam County "screaming judge."

The two sides in the case made their arguments before the court on Feb. 5 whether sanctions recommended by the judicial hearing board were constitutional in the case of a Putnam County Family Court judge accused of screaming at litigants before him in court.

Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti, representing the special judicial disciplinary counsel asked state Supreme Court justices to recommend the hearing board's recommendations in the case of Putnam County Family Court Judge William M. Watkins III. 

The Judicial Hearing Board handed down an order Dec. 3 saying Watkins violated canons of the judicial code of conduct.

The board recommended Watkins to be suspended without pay until the end of his term in 2016. The Supreme Court can accept, deny or alter the recommendations.

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.

The council also recommended that he take anger management courses, address office problems, take six hours of judicial training for domestic violence and pay a $17,759 fine.

The order also cited an "abject failure to treat litigants in his courtroom with the respect and dignity" for yelling at litigants in his courtroom. 

The Feb. 5 oral arguments focused on the definition of a "temporary suspension," as Watkins' suspension would be in force until the end of his term.

Fletcher Cipoletti said this would be a suspension because Watkins would still be a family court judge and he could not practice law.

"Whether he is suspended for four years or four days, until impeached, or if he resigns, he remains a family court judge. He is suspended from doing that job."

Chief Justice Brent Benjamin asked if it would be a problem if Watkins were to be removed from office until the 2016 election and justices appointed a judge who was not elected to preside over matters in family court.

Fletcher Cipoletti said it would not be a problem, saying the reason the statute does not define "temporary" is because judges' terms vary.

She said Watkins' suspension could have been 33 years — a year for each violation.

Watkins' attorney, Bob Martin, disagreed, saying the sanction is judicial impeachment.

"The Constitution is very clear," Martin said. "A judicial officer may be temporarily suspended — not judicially impeached. That's what this would amount to." 

Martin said the 33 counts were joined together in one proceeding.

"By doing that, we take the position that it was one proceeding, which under the Constitution says may be temporarily suspended up to a year."

Chief Justice Brent Benjamin asked if Watkins is able to sit as a judge when he has applied for disability. According to the Associated Press, Watkins planned to retire and filed the motion to stay proceedings so he could wait until his disability application was processed. Justices denied this motion in a 5-0 vote.  

Martin reiterated that Watkins should not be removed and should not be sanctioned the way he has.

Martin also took issue with the procedure of the judicial hearing board, saying it received unsworn testimony that wasn't subject to cross examination.

"The seriousness of this misstep by the judicial hearing board is demonstrated in its order when it discussed Judge Watkins' demeanor when he was called out by one of the complainants," Martin wrote in his brief.

Martin also argued the hearing board released an order which included excerpts from one of two psychological reports, which he said had been ordered sealed by the presiding judicial officers. He said these later ended up released to media outlets.

Martin's brief called dissemination of the psychological reports "a tragedy which should have and could have been prevented."

Fletcher Cipoletti said the order made no reference to any statements of unsworn testimony and did not rely on it for the order.

She said the hearing board relied on stipulations and tendered statements.

Justice Menis Ketchum asked about the 90-day suspension penalty, which was an agreement reached where Watkins agreed to plead guilty.

Ketchum asked her if she thought that was reasonable and if anything occurred at the hearing to warrant a four-year suspension.

Fletcher Cipoletti referenced the court brief, which stated that the judicial hearing board heard Watkins' testimony and "simply put, did not find his testimony about remorse or his ability to rehabilitate himself to be credible. This finding is particularly critical when determining the relevant sanctions in this case."