September 2013 - Boob Tube
by Richard W. Millar, Jr.
I am not sure how I feel about cameras in the courtroom. In the early 1990s (which still does not seem to me to be that long ago), I tried a case in Orange County covered by Court TV, which had a discreet camera in the back of the courtroom. The case was tried by all as if we were oblivious to the camera, or at least no one seemed to play to the camera, as was the case later in the OJ Simpson trial, which was more spectacle than trial. After the conclusion of the trial, Court TV was kind enough to give me full tapes of the proceedings. (They are VHS tapes, so I guess it was that long ago after all.) I tried to watch the tapes, but after the first ten or fifteen minutes, I put them back in their boxes where they have since remained.
I am not sure how judges feel about cameras in the courtroom. I can imagine that Judge Ito probably didn’t care for Jay Leno’s “The Dancing Itos.” There is, however, perhaps a worse, and less complimentary, fate: YouTube. I suspect that if you asked a judge if he would like to see one of his proceedings on YouTube, he would answer in the words of the recently re-imagined Tonto: “Not so much.”
Former West Virginia Judge William Watkins, III, had the misfortune to have one of his sessions posted on YouTube while he was, shall we say, in a state of intellectual déshabillé, and was caught screaming at litigants. (The word “screaming” is an understatement.) This was not, according to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, an isolated instance, as he was charged with twenty-four separate violations of nine canons of the Code of Judicial Ethics. At a Hearing Board last year, Judge Watkins testified that he was remorseful and that he “would attempt in the future to conform to the requirements of the Code of Judicial Conduct.” The Hearing Board, however, found his testimony “less than sincere.” It recommended that he would be suspended without pay until his term of office ended upon December 31, 2016. Then Judge, now Mr., Watkins appealed, claiming that since the suspension ended concurrently with his term it was tantamount to impeachment, a sanction the court lacked constitutional authority to impose. The supreme court made short shrift of this argument, finding, essentially, that there was no question that they had the authority to impose a four-year suspension and that if the four years ran beyond or to the end of his term, so be it.
Examples of the findings bear repeating.
In one case, Judge Watkins refused a party’s request for a hearing and then, after being ordered to do so and three or four, I have lost count, writs of mandamus later, explained his thirteen-month delay “by saying that the circuit court had no authority over the family court, and had no authority to ‘compel me to do anything.’”
In another case, the judge accused a litigant of planting an article about him in the local paper, and called him a “disgusting piece of ...,” concluding “... but no you gotta threaten my family now, well buddy, it’s personal ... it is personal. You have threatened my family and I promise you, you will not hear the end of it from me. I am going to recuse ... I tell you I’m too angry to even be appropriate in this case.”
However, moments later, he apologized to the complainant’s ex-wife and her lawyer, and did an about-face, deciding not to recuse himself after all. During the hearing, however, he accused the complainant of telling a “damn lie” and when the complainant attempted to speak, the judge told him to “shut up.”
In another case where a complainant sought a domestic violence protective order against her husband, he criticized her for “shooting off your fat mouth about what happened. Shut up!”
In my personal favorite, at least a runner-up for an award of judicial indelicacy, he referred to a complainant’s child as “little stinker” and called the father “the biggest jackass in the whole operation.” He criticized the father to the wife saying that she “picked him to have a child with.” When she said that “no, actually I didn’t. It was an accident.” The judge retorted, “Well, honey. It ain’t an accident. You don’t get ‘em off of toilet seats. Okay?”
When another complainant asked him to recuse himself from a divorce case because he once represented the other side’s wife in a bankruptcy matter, the judge wrote stating among other things: “I have reviewed your complaint, and your perspective seems to be held by you. Every other witness describes you as rude, obnoxious, loud, unprofessional, and generally acting like the south end of a north-bound horse. I choose to believe them.”
Well, suffice it to say, the court adopted the Hearing Board’s recommendation stating that: “The overriding goal of judicial discipline is to preserve public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. That confidence was plainly sullied by the actions of Judge Watkins.”
There is at least one thing that could be said about Judge Watkins’ removal:
“It ain’t an accident.”
Richard W. Millar, Jr. is a member of the firm of Millar, Hodges & Bemis in Newport Beach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.