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VOL. 124 | NO. 15 | Friday, January 23, 2009

Push for Domestic Violence Court Gains Traction

By Bill Dries

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STEP AT A TIME: The idea of a domestic violence court dominated interviews the Shelby County Board of Commissioners conducted this week for a vacant judge’s position. Commissioner Henri Brooks, background, argued such a court should be better coordinated before it opens. Assistant District Attorney Karen Cook, foreground, said a “piecemeal” approach is the best way to get started. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

When the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meets Monday to appoint a new General Sessions Criminal Court judge, it will consider 15 candidates.

The 13-member body also will give serious thought to appointing someone who is willing to turn Division 10 into a court devoted exclusively to domestic violence cases.

The push for a domestic violence court emerged Wednesday as commissioners interviewed each of the applicants. The Division 10 judgeship became vacant with the Jan. 2 death of veteran judge Anthony Johnson.

The attorney selected for the appointment will serve for the remaining four years of Johnson’s term of office until the position goes on the 2010 ballot.

Leading the charge

Commissioner Mike Carpenter led the push this week for a domestic violence court, asking each of the 15 applicants if they would be willing to take on such a docket. He also wanted them to define how such a court would work and how it would differ from other “problem solving” courts such as the Shelby County Drug Court or a gun court for firearms offenses.

“We can’t force it to happen,” Carpenter told The Daily News after the three-hour session. “But hopefully what we’re going to get is a candidate that is willing to take on that docket and who has an understanding of what the role of a domestic violence docket is.”

A judge would have to volunteer to take on most of the domestic violence criminal cases that enter the Criminal Court system at the General Sessions level.

Judge Ann Pugh did that for three years starting in 1997 with funding from a state grant. Last year she told a task force exploring the idea of a family court system that it was more than one person could handle. She also lamented that without such a court, there was less follow-through or consistency in cases, allowing some victims to get lost in the system.

“Ashley Scott is a microcosm of the whole problem. There are hundreds of women just like her who have been suffering for years and who continue to suffer abuse and literally fear for their lives and who may be the next Ashley Scott.”
– Mike Carpenter
Shelby County Board of Commissioners member

Former General Sessions Judge Mischelle Alexander Best took on the task for three years after Pugh. She is among the applicants for the judicial appointment and indicated a willingness to consider taking on the task again.

Carpenter said he was looking for “those who really indicated a passion and really understood that the No. 1 purpose of a domestic violence docket is victim safety within the confines of the law.”

“It’s offender accountability,” he said. “That’s why domestic violence court works – because it helps better protect the victims and it holds the offenders accountable. The current model we have is not effectively doing it.”

Lone nay-sayer

All but one of the applicants said he or she was willing to consider such a conversion of the court.

Assistant District Attorney Rick McKenna, who was assigned as a prosecutor in Johnson’s division, said he would not.

“I don’t think a domestic violence court is the right way to go,” he told commissioners.

He also cited Johnson’s opposition to such a move. McKenna said Johnson told him anyone “would be a fool to take on the job.”

“He said it was wrong to put all of the cases into one court,” McKenna told the panel. “I just want to honor Tony Johnson. … He was the best there ever was.”

McKenna said if appointed he would keep Johnson’s name posted outside the courtroom, never have his own name posted and would not take the pay bump that would come with being a judge.

Meanwhile, Assistant District Attorney Karen Cook, who heads the domestic violence team of prosecutors, urged the commission to appoint someone who will convert the court to a domestic violence docket.

Cook, who is not one of the applicants for the position, said the benefits are a better use of existing resources.

“Right now the resources that we do have are being splintered among seven, eight, nine, 10 courts,” she said. “We have YWCA advocates who are in the building, but they can’t be in seven different courts. … Sometimes we can’t be where we need to be. … If we can utilize the

resources and focus them into one place instead of splintering them throughout the criminal justice center it would be a much, much better use of resources than we have.”

But Commissioner Henri Brooks expressed concern that there should be a better plan for coordinating such a response to the problem.

“It’s just not resources. It’s making sure that we connect all the dots. We coordinate and we do all the research we need to do,” Brooks told Cook. “I do support a domestic violence court, but not to then have to piecemeal something… and then have to look back and say, ‘we should have done that.’”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Cook responded. “We can’t do a massive project all at once. It would be overwhelming. … I think we can do this and I think it needs to be piecemeal so it’s not so overwhelming for the criminal justice system.”

Plenty of talk

The task force that met in 2008 came to the conclusion that some changes in state law would be necessary to get a single, family court that could address the civil and criminal cases and that can involve a single family in turmoil and offer social services to that family.

The idea of domestic violence court would be more narrowly focused. But Brooks argued there would still have to be some intracourt communication that doesn’t exist now.

“We don’t establish a domestic violence court and we’re not talking to each other,” she said. “There’s no coordination with Juvenile Court, which is extremely important. We have some disconnects there. That’s what I call piecemeal.”

Cook suggested some of the disconnects Brooks mentioned have to do with more than legal barriers.

“The bigger picture is the egos in the justice system,” she said. “We have to get past our own egos and focus on the children and the (families) and the people who are being abused.”

The push for a domestic violence court comes the week after the high-profile murder trial of Jeffrey Scott for the 2006 beating death of his wife, Ashley Scott. Cook and Assistant District Attorney Missy Branham prosecuted the case in which a jury convicted Jeffrey Scott of second-degree murder.

“Ashley Scott is a microcosm of the whole problem,” Carpenter told The Daily News. “There are hundreds of women just like her who have been suffering for years and who continue to suffer abuse and literally fear for their lives and who may be the next Ashley Scott.”

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