A recent report from Court Watch Montgomery found significant differences in the way District Court judges handle hearings for domestic violence protection orders.
Court Watch is a nonprofit organization that aims to ensure access to responsive justice programs and resources for domestic violence victims. Volunteers from the organization sit in on hearings for victims seeking protection orders and measure how often judges follow best practices established by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
“These practices, coupled with appropriate demeanor, should be the judicial equivalent of a surgeon washing their hands prior to surgery,” the report states.
But the procedures, which require no funding, were only used in slightly more than 50 percent of hearings, Court Watch concluded in its most recent report, which analyzed hearings held between Sept. 1, 2016, and March 31.
The recommended practices are:
- When victims wish to drop their cases, judges should try to ensure that a victim has not been coerced or intimidated and take a moment to discuss the person’s safety.
- When victims do drop their cases, judges should encourage petitioners to return to court any time they are in danger from an intimate partner.
- Judges should tell every respondent receiving an order that violating a protective order can result in imprisonment.
- Judges should tell every respondent receiving a final protective order that the person must surrender all guns to law enforcement immediately.
- Judges and bailiffs should implement staggered exits, such as having the respondent wait in the courtroom for a minimum of 15 minutes after the victim’s departure.
Use of the practices also varied by judge, with one judge using the best practices 23 percent of the time, and another using them 72 percent of the time.
Court Watch released its first report, based on 600 hearings, in 2011. Following that initial report, some judges increased their use of the best practices dramatically.
The use of staggered exits rose from 15 percent of cases in 2011 to 70 percent in 2012, but has since dropped, according to Court Watch data.
Staggered exits were used only about 29 percent of the time in 2015 and about 45 percent of the time during the recent observation period, according to the group’s latest report.
Laurie Duker, co-founder and executive director of Court Watch, said Thursday some judges were surprised when they learned of the low use of staggered exits at an annual meeting with the organization in June.
Duker said judges believed staggered exits were used more frequently, but often a bailiff may let a respondent leave before the 15 minutes are up. One Court Watch volunteer heard a courtroom deputy tell a respondent who had just been given a final protective order, “Some courts hold you for 15 minutes, but I’ll let you get out of here in two or three minutes. I know you have things to do.”
Duker said such decisions by courtroom deputies amount to giving victims little more than “a running start” after emotional hearings.
Judges aren’t bound by any law or regulation to follow the best practices advocated by Court Watch, but universal implementation would mean that all victims—and respondents—are treated the same, Duker said.
Judges are generally accepting of Court Watch’s conclusions. Since the last report and meeting between judges and Court Watch volunteers, Duker has been sending weekly reports about the number of staggered exits to the judges so they can monitor use of the practice in real time.
Judges were only included in the Court Watch report if volunteers observed them presiding over at least 60 protective order hearings.
Some additional Court Watch findings:
- Judges substantially increased the frequency of warning respondents with final protective orders that they must surrender all guns to law enforcement. In 2011, judges gave the warning in about one-third of hearings, compared to 78 percent of the time more recently.
- One judge told 12 percent of respondents to surrender guns to law enforcement, compared to another judge who gave the warning in every hearing observed.
- About 65 percent of petitioners were asked whether they’d been coerced when they requested that a case be dropped.
- One judge told just 6 percent of respondents that violation of a protective order can result in imprisonment, compared to another judge who gave the warning 82 percent of the time.
The full report is online.
The Court Watch report does not identify judges by name. The most recently appointed District Court judges are not included in the report because they had not been observed during 60 or more hearings. Two of the judges included in the report are no longer on the District Court bench.
Court Watch Montgomery observes cases in Montgomery County, but distributes their findings to judges statewide and participates in statewide policy meetings.