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Ethics hearing concludes in judge’s case, with his peers to decide if he crossed the line

An ethics hearing focused on whether a West Virginia judge pulled rank after a traffic stop has concluded, with members of the Judicial Hearing Board laying the groundwork for recommendations in the case over the next few months.

“This is one where I wish we had a jury so someone else could make the hard decision, but that’s not the hand we’ve been dealt,” said Judge Michael Lorensen, a Berkeley circuit judge who presided over the three-day judicial ethics hearing, praising lawyers on each side for the quality of their presentations.

Judge Carter Williams

The ethics case of Judge Carter Williams of Hardy County was heard over three days by members of the Judicial Hearing Board: three circuit judges, one magistrate, one family court judge, one mental hygiene commissioner, juvenile referee, special commissioner, special master, or former judge or justice, state or federal, and three members of the public.

The range of possible punishment for Judge Williams ranges from admonishment to a fine to suspension to loss of his law license. The state Supreme Court has the last word in these cases.

Allegations against the judge include running afoul of compliance with the law, undermining confidence in the judiciary, eroding the prestige of judicial office, diminishing the ideals of impartiality and fairness and violating codes of judicial and professional conduct.

Scrutiny began July 11, 2021, when Williams went out for ice cream with his family, started to drive home, picked up a cell phone he had dropped, got pulled over by Moorefield Police Officer Deavonta Johnson for having the phone in his hand while driving, berated the patrolman, and called multiple local officials, including the patrolman’s supervisor while the traffic stop was still going on.

“What’s the problem?” Williams asks as the officer approaches his stopped vehicle.

“How you doing sir?” says Johnson, the patrolman. “The reason I was stopping you…”

The judge interjects: “Judge Williams. Why did you stop me?”

Williams took the stand this week to acknowledge flying off the handle, but he denied trying to leverage the authority and prestige of his office.

“From Day 1, I said that my conduct on July 11 last year was unbecoming of a judge. I said it was disrespectful and rude,” he testified.

He later added, “I made a federal case out of it. Just silly. Made a federal case out of it. I’ve regretted it since and tried to make right on it since.”

Investigators say that in the hours following the traffic stop, Williams called the supervising officer, Lt. Melody Burrows, multiple times, called Moorefield Police Chief Stephen Riggleman and called the town’s former police chief Steve Reckart.

In testimony Tuesday, Reckart recounted “that he was expressing his displeasure in some of the criminal cases that were being brought to his court and advised that he had some leeway in some of those cases but that he might look at them tighter in the future.”

Moorefield Mayor Carol Zuber testified this week that Judge Williams went to her home about 10 p.m. the night of the traffic stop.

“He was upset,” Zuber recalled. “He said, ‘You know I really hate to do this to you, but you’ll have to do something with the police officers’ and then proceeded to tell me that he was pulled over because they accused him of holding his cell phone, talking on his cell phone.”

She continued, “He made the indication that all of my officers, that I needed to straighten them up. He said they were a bunch of young men, that they were kids.”

The judge testified that he never said he would change the rulings in his courtroom based on the views he had expressed.

“I never said I was going to change my rulings. Wouldn’t have done that, would never do that,” he said.

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