Embattled Ex-Judge Hearing Cases Again

April 4, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA longtime Dorchester County judge who resigned in December amid accusations that he mishandled foreclosure cases is once again deciding those kinds of cases, but this time under a different title, The Nerve has learned.

Former Master-in-Equity Patrick Watts, who, according to the state’s top court in 2009, violated the constitutional rights of a homeowner facing foreclosure, has been appointed as a “special referee” in at least 48 foreclosure cases in Dorchester County, according to a county case list provided last week to The Nerve.

The report doesn’t identify Watts by name, though a spokeswoman in the county clerk of court’s office said all of the cases on the list are assigned to Watts. It’s unclear when Watts was assigned in all of the cases, though 13 cases were filed after Watts had resigned as master-in-equity.

The list also doesn’t indicate who appointed Watts, a private-practice attorney in Summerville, as a special referee. At The Nerve’s request, the clerk of court’s office randomly selected six of those cases and pulled the appointment orders.

In all six cases, Watts, who is named in the orders, was appointed on March 17 by Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson of Orangeburg, chief administrative judge of the 1st Circuit, which covers Dorchester, Orangeburg and Calhoun counties. Dickson in all six cases ordered that hearings be held in Watts’ private law office in Summerville.

In a Dec. 8 letter to S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, Watts said he was resigning his master-in-equity position effective Dec. 31, though he didn’t give any reasons in the letter. Toal appointed Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein of St. George as the temporary master-in-equity for Dorchester County.

Watts didn’t respond to written and phone messages left for him last week by The Nerve. Neither Dickson nor Goodstein responded to phone messages seeking comment.

Rosalyn Frierson, the S.C Judicial Department’s state court administrator, told The Nerve last week that she did not have “any information” on Watts’ appointment as a special referee.

Contacted last week, S.C. Sen. Mike Rose, an attorney and a vocal critic of Watts, told The Nerve, “Someone needs to explain how someone who withdrew as a judge, resigned as a judge, can keep being a judge.”

“If he’s allowed to do this,” the Dorchester County Republican continued, “there’s a glaring loophole in this system.”

Watts earned about $68,000 annually as the county’s part-time master-in-equity, a position he had held since 1994. What he will earn in his new role as a special referee is unknown; under a state court rule, he can set his own pay, unless there is an objection by one of the parties.

“The compensation of the special referee shall be paid by the parties in such amount as shall be set by the special referee, subject to review by the circuit court upon objection by any party within ten (10) days of receipt of the order,” according to Civil Rule 53.

Under the court rule, a special referee appointed by a circuit judge “shall exercise all power and authority which a circuit judge sitting without a jury would have in a similar matter.”

Masters-in-equity have the authority of circuit judges but typically hear non-jury civil cases, mainly foreclosures.There are 21 masters-in-equity in the state, according to court records.

Under state law, masters-in-equity are screened by the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission, nominated by their respective county’s state legislative delegation, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. A permanent replacement for Watts’ six-year seat could be selected by June.

Although the Dorchester County legislative delegation could not agree on a candidate before Watts’ term expired last June 30, Watts was allowed to remain in the position after his term expired, becoming the first master-in-equity to be in “holdover” status, a court official told The Nerve earlier.

Watts re-applied for his seat after his term expired but withdrew last fall, delaying the election process.

Watts came under fire from the state 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, according to court records.

Peterson-Davidson earlier 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, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel informed her that although her complaint was not dismissed, the “disposition is confidential under the provisions” of court rules.

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.

Rose told The Nerve last year that he had serious questions about Watts’ handling of the Peterson-Davidson case, and other foreclosure cases and attorney fees in foreclosure cases handled by Watts.

Rose filed a bill (S. 270) this legislative session 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, a 10-member body comprised mostly of lawmakers.

Rose also introduced another bill (S. 269) that would prevent masters-in-equity from being in “holdover” status after their terms expire, and a third bill (S. 394) that would limit the annual salaries of masters-in-equity to certain percentages of a circuit judge’s salary, depending on whether they were full- or part-time positions.

None of the bills has moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, though S. 394 is on the agenda for a committee hearing Tuesday.

The committee is chaired by Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. McConnell also is chairman of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, alternating every other year in that position.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.