A Summerville couple have filed an ethics complaint against a former Dorchester County judge, questioning why he is continuing to hear their foreclosure case – and others – after he resigned his judgeship.
The woman, who asked that she and her husband not be identified, provided their written complaint to The Nerve last week following a published Nerve story revealing that former Master-in-Equity Patrick Watts had been assigned at least 48 foreclosure cases in Dorchester County as a “special referee.”
Watts had been the county’s master-in-equity since 1994 and earned about $68,000 annually in the part-time position. He resigned at the end of 2010 amid allegations that he mishandled foreclosure cases, including one involving another Summerville woman whose case appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court.
Watts remained on the bench after his term expired June 30 last year, becoming, according to the state judicial screening committee’s chief lawyer, the first master-in-equity in the state to be in “holdover” status.
The state’s top court in 2009 ruled that Watts violated Sherry Peterson-Davidson’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, according to court records.
Peterson-Davidson later filed an ethics complaint against Watts, who received a private slap-on-the wrist, according to a December court letter provided by Peterson-Davidson to The Nerve.
Watts declined comment on the latest complaint when contacted Monday by The Nerve.
Under court rules, the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, an arm of the Supreme Court that investigates ethical complaints against judges and lawyers, generally cannot publicly reveal complaints unless the Commission on Judicial Conduct or Commission on Lawyer Conduct authorizes ethics charges; or if the Supreme Court, which has final say on discipline, issues a public sanction.
Court rules, however, do not prevent people who file complaints from publicly revealing them.
The latest complaint against Watts is dated March 25. The woman who filed it provided The Nerve with a March 29 letter from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel acknowledging that it had received the grievance and would “conduct an investigation in the matters you have reported in your complaint.”
Most complaints against judges are dismissed, court records show. Lee Coggiola, the state’s chief disciplinary counsel, earlier told The Nerve that’s because they often deal with appellate rather than ethical questions.