Embattled Judge in Legal Limbo

May 17, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA longtime Dorchester County judge under fire for his handling of foreclosure cases could remain on the job after his term expires June 30 because of an apparent split among the county’s state legislative delegation.

If nothing is done, Patrick Watts would be the only master-in-equity judge in South Carolina to be in “holdover” status this year, Jane Shuler, chief attorney for the S.C. Judicial Merit Selection Commission, told The Nerve last week.

Master-in-equity judges have the authority of circuit court judges but typically hear non-jury civil cases, mainly foreclosures. There are 21 masters-in-equity in South Carolina serving counties with a population of at least 130,000.

Under state law, masters-in-equity serve six-year terms. They first have to be found qualified by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission before being nominated by the county’s state legislative delegation.  The governor appoints judges from nominees submitted by the delegation, and the S.C. Legislature has to approve any appointees.

The Nerve first reported on Watts’ renomination battle in a story published March 15. Watts has been under public scrutiny since the S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in December that he violated a Summerville woman’s constitutional rights 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.

As he did for the initial story, Watts, who has been Dorchester County’s part-time magistrate since 1994, declined to discuss the ruling or his renomination when contacted last week by The Nerve. His annual salary as a part-time judge is $67,821, county records show; he also is a private practice attorney in Summerville.

“The rules of judicial conduct prohibit me from saying anything,” Watts said.

The seven-member Dorchester County state delegation has not submitted any candidate names to Gov. Mark Sanford. Watts and Frederick Newton, a Dorchester County magistrate and Summerville attorney, were both found qualified by the judicial screening commission last fall.

“The governor’s lawyer and I each independently interviewed Watts for hours about allegations of misconduct by Watts that came to me from three independent sources,” Sen. Mike Rose, one of the delegation members, said last week in a written response to questions from The Nerve. “I announced I will not vote for Watts, and the governor’s staff has informed our delegation members that the governor will not reappoint Watts if the delegation recommends him.”

Rose said delegation chairwoman Rep. Jenny Horne has not responded to his request to call a delegation meeting to nominate a candidate. He noted that the “continued avoidance” of a delegation meeting might be an attempt by Watts’ supporters to “avoid having to deal with the issues regarding Watts, and may be for the purpose of allowing Watts to continue in holdover status for the remainder of 2010 in hopes that a new governor would reappoint Watts next year.”

“The effect of this is to leave Watts serving as a judge for the rest of this year despite the conclusion by the governor and me that Watts should not be reappointed due to his deficient conduct,” Rose said.

Rose said that having Watts in “holdover” status would “enable legislators to exert too much influence” on him.

Rose in his response didn’t provide details of his allegations, though he earlier told The Nerve that besides the Dec. 21 Supreme Court ruling, he had questions about Watts’ handling of other foreclosure sales and attorney fees in foreclosure cases. He also said he was supporting the other candidate, Newton, for the master-in-equity position.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Sanford spokesman Ben Fox would neither confirm nor deny whether the governor would reappoint Watts, saying only, “We will likely act on a recommendation from the local delegation, but we have as yet to receive one.”

The Nerve last week sent written questions to all seven members of the county delegation, but only Rose responded. Besides Rose and Horne, both Republicans, the other delegation members are House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Reps. Annette Young, both Republicans; Rep. Patsy Knight, a Democrat; and Sens. Larry Grooms, a Republican, and John Matthews, a Democrat.

In 2004, Harrell, Young, Grooms and Matthews signed a delegation letter supporting Watts’ nomination then, according to the governor’s office.

Shuler, of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, said last week that if Watts isn’t reappointed by the end of this legislative session in mid-June, he would have to be screened again by the commission in November if he wants to retain his seat.  Other candidates could seek the seat as well, she said.

Sherry Peterson-Davidson, the Summerville woman at the center of the December Supreme Court ruling, told The Nerve last week  that she can’t understand why most of the Dorchester County delegation apparently supports Watts.

“The Supreme Court said he broke the law, and yet these legislators are ignoring it,” she said. “They are all being neglectful.”

Although the state’s top court ruled that her rights were violated, Peterson-Davidson said she and her husband, Ed Davidson, have not yet had a new foreclosure hearing.  A related lawsuit filed by her and her husband also is pending, she said.

Despite the legal setbacks, the couple have been able to remain in their home, which they purchased new in 2004, Peterson-Davidson said. She earlier told The Nerve that she and her husband, both of whom are nurses, fell behind on their mortgage payments after she got laid off from her job at a local medical center.

The total listed debt was $212,034, including $4,500 owed to a Columbia law firm that represented the lender, records show.

“The fact that we’re still in this home and have a place to call home is truly a miracle,” Peterson-Davidson said last week. “We feel we are totally in God’s hands.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.