An embattled Dorchester County judge has resigned following accusations that he mishandled foreclosure cases, though he isn’t facing any serious ethical charges stemming from the cases.
Patrick Watts, the county’s longtime master-in-equity who earned about $68,000 annually in the part-time position, received a private, ethical slap on the wrist last month from state court officials for his handling of a foreclosure case that resulted in an S.C. Supreme Court ruling against him, according to a court letter obtained last week by The Nerve.
The Nerve detailed the controversy surrounding Watts in several stories last year. Watts, who had been Dorchester County’s master-in-equity since 1994, was the only master-in-equity in the state to be in “holdover” status and the first-ever “holdover” for that position, meaning he was allowed under state law to serve after his term expired on June 30.
Watts, who is a Summerville private-practice attorney, did not respond to written and phone messages last week from The Nerve.
Masters-in-equity have the authority of circuit judges but typically hear non-jury civil cases, mainly foreclosures. Last year, there were 21 masters-in-equity in South Carolina serving counties with a population of at least 130,000.
In a Dec. 8 letter to S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, Watts said he was resigning effective midnight Dec. 31. He didn’t give any reasons in the letter for his resignation.
Under state law, masters-in-equity are nominated by a county’s state legislative delegation, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. A permanent replacement for Watts’ six-year seat is expected to be selected by June; Watts re-applied for his seat after his term expired but withdrew last fall, delaying the election process.
The apparent decision by court officials not to issue any serious ethical changes against Watts isn’t unusual for higher-level judges in South Carolina.
In the past three fiscal years, for example, no higher-level judge other than a former Sumter County master-in-equity received any kind of public sanction, though 373 formal complaints were filed during that time against family and circuit judges, and 26 complaints were made against appellate judges, according to court records reviewed by The Nerve.
Twenty-eight complaints were filed during the period against masters-in-equity or court-appointed referees, records show.
There are 98 family and circuit judges, and 14 appellate judges in the S.C. Judicial Department. The lowest-level judges are magistrates and municipal judges; there are more than 600 of them statewide.
Public sanctions against judges, which are imposed by the five-member state Supreme Court, can range from an admonition to removal from office. Magistrates and municipal judges, who are not required under state law to be attorneys, receive far more public sanctions than do higher-level judges; in the past three years, at least 17 magistrate or municipal judges received public sanctions, mainly reprimands, court records show.
Court rules allow for private “letters of caution” or “admonitions” – the lightest punishment for ethical infractions by judges. As in Watts’ case, private warnings or sanctions keep the public from knowing the details of the allegations or specific findings by judicial officials.
Watts came under fire from the Supreme Court in a December 2009 ruling in which the justices unanimously said Watts violated the constitutional rights of Sherry Peterson-Davidson of Summerville by allowing his secretary to conduct a foreclosure hearing involving her home – without any testimony. Watts later signed an order authorizing the foreclosure, though he wasn’t present at the hearing.
Peterson-Davidson told The Nerve that she filed a complaint last year against Watts with the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, an arm of the Supreme Court that investigates ethical complaints against judges and lawyers.
In a Dec. 23 letter to Peterson-Davidson – a copy of which Peterson-Davidson provided to The Nerve last week – Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Joseph Turner informed her that the “matter was concluded” on Dec. 23.
“Your complaint was not dismissed, but the disposition is confidential under the provisions” of court rules, Turner wrote. “This constitutes final disposition of the proceedings in this matter. Your cooperation with the commission and this office is appreciated.”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Peterson-Davidson told The Nerve last week in a written response. “I think his ‘retirement’ is just a way to protect himself from further discipline.”
S.C. Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, told The Nerve last year that he had serious questions about Watts’ handling of Peterson-Davidson’s case, and other foreclosure cases and attorney fees in foreclosure cases handled by Watts. Rose has repeatedly declined to discuss specifics of the other cases, including when contacted last week by The Nerve.
Rose earlier told The Nerve that he and an attorney in the Governor’s Office each interviewed Watts last year about the allegations. Rose at that time said his information came from “three independent sources,” though he declined to identify them.
Rose also publicly criticized the Dorchester County legislative delegation for refusing to meet to decide on a nominee for Watts’ seat, which he contended kept Watts on the bench far longer than necessary.
Last month, Rose prefiled a bill (S. 270) requiring county delegations to submit names of master-in-equity nominees to the governor within 60 days of when candidates were found qualified by the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission. He also introduced another bill (S. 269) that would prevent masters-in-equity from being in “holdover” status after their terms expire.
Contacted last week by The Nerve, Lee Coggiola, who heads the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, declined to discuss any matters involving Watts, saying she was prohibited by court rules from even confirming whether a complaint was filed against him.
Under court rules, complaints against judges become public if formal charges are issued by the Commission on Judicial Conduct, or if the Supreme Court issues a public sanction. Coggiola said no public charges or public sanctions have been issued against Watts, noting that court rules permit her to reveal that.
Coggiola said a confidential disposition – as cited in her office’s letter to Peterson-Davidson – involves either a private letter of caution – with or without a finding of minor misconduct – or a private admonition, which is considered the lowest sanction level under court rules.
Coggiola said her office, which acts like a prosecutor’s office, can issue letters of caution without findings of misconduct, while the 26-member Commission on Judicial Conduct, which authorizes ethical charges and conducts hearings, has the authority to issue admonitions or caution letters with findings of misconduct. The Supreme Court has the final say on any sanctions under court rules.
Retired Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper of Manning, who chairs the commission, did not respond to written and phone messages last week from The Nerve.
Asked why higher-level judges rarely face public discipline, Coggiola replied that the vast majority of complaints against all levels of judges are dismissed. A review by The Nerve found that over the past three fiscal years, 878 complaints were dismissed - the vast majority by Coggiola's office - or about 77 percent of the 1,143 received and pending complaints during the period.
“Litigants become unhappy, and they’re going to blame the judges,” Coggiola said. “It doesn’t mean they (litigants’ complaints) are dismissed because they (involve) judges. …. They’ve gotten dismissed because they have no merit.”
Coggiola, a former Richland County public defender and chief Court of Appeals staff lawyer who has headed the disciplinary office since 2007, said complaints usually are dismissed because they pertain to judges’ rulings, not potential ethical violations by the judges.
Asked if private sanctions against judges should be allowed, Coggiola replied, “I think so, and many states do it; we’re not out of line with most states.”
Still, annual disciplinary reports issued by her office do not break down the number of private sanctions by type of judge, so the public cannot know which courts are affected. Coggiola said she doesn’t “see any particular reason” to change that.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org