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VOL. 123 | NO. 41 | Thursday, February 28, 2008

Boundaries To Unified Family Court Exist, Task Force Finds

By Bill Dries

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THE GREAT DIVIDE: The task force studying the idea of a Shelby County Family Court is discovering the distance between the Shelby County Courthouse, left, and the Criminal Justice Center, right, becomes longer when jurisdictional lines are about to be crossed. -- Photo By Bill Dries

Third Street is the boundary between civil and criminal cases even if the same people are involved in both kinds of cases.

The Shelby County Courthouse where civil cases are heard is on the west side of the street. The Criminal Justice Center, at 201 Poplar Ave. on the east side of the street, is where criminal courts are.

The boundary is proving to be a barrier to the idea of a unified family court in Shelby County.

The Shelby County task force whose report on the idea of a unified family court is due at the end of March is discovering that other similar structures aren't one courtroom and one judge where all family issues are channeled.

Nor should they be, according to the story the panel heard last week from General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Ann Pugh.

Too much to handle

Pugh agreed to preside over a domestic violence court starting in May 1997 and soon came to regret it. She volunteered after county government received a $750,000 state grant to start such a court. Some friends and colleagues advised her not to.

"There's a lot of it I've tried to forget," she said as she recounted 12-hour days with no time to eat. "It's more than one person can handle."

Pugh handled all of the county's domestic violence cases, including protective orders and reports a month later from people convicted of domestic violence and referred to treatment programs. That was in addition to her regular caseload.

Pugh lasted for three years. The domestic violence court lasted six in all. Civil court judges helped with the protective orders, but eventually that part of the process led to the establishment of judicial commissioners.

Domestic violence is just one of the areas a hoped-for unified family court would deal with.

"I don't know what they are doing now but I know that they are losing a lot of victims," Pugh said of the follow-through on domestic violence cases.

That follow-through included investigators and coordinators who worked with victims. Like other General Sessions Court judges, Pugh still hears some domestic violence cases and estimated that most are set for trial with 90 percent dismissed before or at trial because a victim changes his or her story.

"The (domestic violence) unit used to put those people on and let them testify and then question them about which day they were telling the truth," Pugh said. "They're not keeping up with victims - whoever they (are) - prosecutors, victim witness coordinators, somebody."

To Circuit Court Judge Rita Stotts, who is chair of the task force, Pugh's story proves a point she's made repeatedly in recent months.

"Without the cooperation of the judges, we don't get very far fast," she said. "She is the face of somebody who went through a specialized kind of court."

And Pugh was emphatic about the doubts many of her colleagues on the bench have about trying it again.

"I know you are not going to find a judge there now to do it either," she said.

Ballooning ideas

The task force this month decided to pursue a proposal for some kind of unified family court in Shelby County. It's a goal with a few specific features that are still in flux. There is the idea of having three divisions of such a court.

"This may take two or three or four times going back to the legislature to do it. It's going to take time to put all of the pieces in place," said Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Mike Carpenter.

Another possibility, he said, is creating new divisions or judicial positions.

Pugh wondered aloud how this might affect judges in the middle of an eight-year term of elected office. She also said new courts cost money and need courtroom space that is currently not available in the Criminal Justice Center, where those charged with crimes are jailed pending a hearing.

"I don't think you're going to have the sheriff wanting to bring the prisoners handcuffed across the street to the courthouse," Pugh said. "You start with a little idea and it balloons into a really big idea, a lot of far-reaching things."

The group examined the Baltimore Family Division of Circuit Court, a family court that does not deal with criminal cases.

Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Terre Fratesi said the task force might direct its efforts toward something "smaller and more achievable like a family safety center." Such a center would focus on protective orders and other steps designed to try to intervene in immediate issues that continue to surface for troubled families.

Stotts admitted to more uncertainty than other members of the group.

"There's got to be a reason that the judges are all so hesitant to move into this," she said.

"I still don't have a good picture. We've never really gotten into the cons. We've talked a lot about the pros."

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