Judicial Impropriety

CHARLESTON – Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong found herself on the other side of the bench Monday as she pleaded her case before a nine-member Judicial Hearing Board.

Wilfong admitted to impropriety but pleaded to keep her elected office during the day-long hearing at the Kanawha County Judicial Building. Wilfong’s attorneys and the Office of Lawyer Disciplinary Council now have seven days to file post-hearing briefs in the case.

The Judicial Board will consider the evidence and make a recommendation to the West Virginia Supreme Court, where the final ruling will be made.

The West Virginia Office of Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel spent months investigating an admitted two-year affair between Wilfong and former North Central Community Corrections Director Travis Carter.

Carter and Wilfong both served in their official capacities during the affair, and Wilfong was a non-voting member of the Correctional Board. She also sentenced several offenders to Carter’s program while the two were romantically involved.

Wilfong self-reported the affair in October.

The Judicial Investigation Commission charged Wilfong with violating four canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct: integrity and independence of the judiciary; impropriety and the appearance of impropriety; impartial performance of duties; and conduct of extra-judicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with judicial obligations.

Wilfong has admitted to violating the first two canons, but maintains she did not violate the other two, according to testimony Monday.

Taking the witness stand in her own defense, Wilfong said she was embarrassed and ashamed of the affair. She said she was grateful to her husband, who forgave her and stayed by her side, and to numerous members of the community who continued to support her despite her poor decisions.

Wilfong testified that the affair began in 2010. As a circuit judge, others felt they could confide in her, Wilfong said.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m younger, easier to talk to and more accessible, but when lawyers or courthouse employees have problems they come to me,” she said.

That was how the affair with Carter began, Wilfong testified. He came to her with personal problems and the two formed a close bond, she said.

The affair was physical at first, but strictly emotional later, Wilfong testified. She said while the sexual activity ceased, the romantic attachment grew.

“I don’t know how to explain it but the relationship just deepened,” she said.

Wilfong said the affair ended in 2012 while at a judicial conference.

“I just felt sick. I called my husband and told him I wanted to come home early. I told him I had been having an affair. He asked if I wanted him to come and get me. Who does that?” she said. “When I pulled into the driveway, most people would expect their spouse to have packed their bags and left. Not mine.”

Though Wilfong’s husband was forgiving, the extra-marital relationship created problems in the Randolph County legal community, according to witness testimony.

Attorney Chris Cooper testified to filing a petition to disqualify Wilfong from some of his cases because defendants related rumors of the affair to him and requested the petitions. Cooper was one of several attorneys to file such petitions, including Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Parker.

Cooper said he didn’t have direct knowledge of the affair but described it as “the worst-kept rumor in the courtroom.”

Cooper spoke of Wilfong as a friend and said he was reluctant to be a “judicial rat.” The affair has weighed heavily on the Elkins community, he said.

“It’s a sad state of affairs. A lot of people are hurt by this. Two people made a decision that has impacted people’s lives in a very negative way,” he said. “It has affected the legal community in a negative way. The press attention has been relentless. I feel like a lot of public trust has been lost.”

Attorney Phillip Isner also filed a petition for disqualification.

During his testimony, Isner described both his and Wilfong’s personalities as “flirtatious.” He said they texted each other daily, and there were occasions when their conversations went too far, making him feel ill at ease.

“There were times when it became more serious, and it made me uncomfortable,” he said.

Isner said he learned of the affair directly from Wilfong.

“The short answer is she told me. My first reaction was about the mechanics of it and how it could work given their working relationships,” he said.

Despite this concern, when Wilfong asked to use Isner’s home to meet with Carter, Isner testified he gave her his garage door opener.

“At the time I didn’t think a lot about it,” he said.

Randolph County Commissioner Mike Taylor testified he had a good working relationship with Wilfong.

But he also described public displays of affection between Wilfong and Carter, and he testified that Wilfong lobbied aggressively on matters that benefited North Central Community Corrections.

This included asking the County Commission for a new vehicle for Carter even though the one he was currently using only had 18,000 miles and appeared to be in fine working condition.

Attorneys Rachael L. Fletcher Cipoletti and David A. Jividen represented the Office of Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel.

Cipoletti told the panel Wilfong should be suspended for the remainder of her term. During the course of the two-year affair, Wilfong’s actions brought “disrepute to the Randolph County Judiciary.”

Jividen said Wilfong’s failure to admit violation of the judicial canon regarding conflict of interest shows that she does not have a full grasp of the judicial canons.

Attorney David A. Sims is Wilfong’s counsel. During his closing statement, he said while Wilfong’s actions were inappropriate and are deserving of censure, she should be allowed to remain on the bench.

“At some point, the bloodletting has got to stop,” he said.