Q&A: Mecklenburg County judge on court operations, increased domestic violence during pandemic

Q&A: Mecklenburg County judge on court operations, increased domestic violence during pandemic
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As a result of the stay at home order, the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is open but operating on a limited schedule to handle matters that can’t wait.

Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Rex Marvel hears cases on family and domestic matters, including domestic violence, divorce, and child custody hearings.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the county courthouse is only addressing emergency cases and what’s considered a “constitutionally essential” matter until at least June 1. The Agenda reached out to Judge Marvel to learn more about what this means and how it’s affecting Charlotteans.

courthouse judge marvel

What cases are still being heard at the courthouse?

We’re only addressing emergency cases and what’s considered a constitutionally essential matter. So a constitutionally essential matter, that’s something where your rights are attached …things like bond settings for adults or juveniles, and then for other essentials or emergencies that is like domestic violence or emergency custody cases.

Why is it important that the court still hears these cases?

People need access to justice, and they need resolution on these cases that are deemed to be emergencies. As far as the constitutionally essential matters, your Fourth Amendment rights still exist. You still have constitutional rights even in the midst of a pandemic like we’re dealing with right now.

What kind of safety precautions has the courthouse implemented?

It’s not the same place that it was before. Obviously the numbers have reduced some.

The clerks and the judges are wearing masks and gloves because we handle paper and we have to move things back and forth. There is hand sanitizer at all the tables. Deputies are limiting the number of people in each courtroom so we only hear one case at a time. The courthouse deputies are both in and outside the courtrooms enforcing six foot limitations and we’re also ensuring that there’s never more than ten people inside an individual courtroom at a time.

An additional precaution is that the staff are all doing temperature checks to make sure that no one is coming to work with an elevated temperature.

What’s it like at the courthouse right now? How does it feel operating so differently?

The first week it was like I was on a different planet or really more like a movie. You’ve seen the movie Pandemic or Outbreak … and (I’m) like, ‘Wow, this is happening.’ It’s frightening.

Once you start to get kind of used to things, then everyone is really focused on the mission. How do we ensure access to justice? How do we ensure the courthouse is open?

Are individuals worried about coming to the courthouse because they’re concerned about coronavirus?

I’ve had a number of lawyers with that concern. That’s my concern that there would be a victim of a crime or a victim of an abuse that is afraid to come to court. For example, I’m going to domestic violence court tomorrow morning, and I know not everyone is going to show up.

My concern is one, that people aren’t aware that the courtroom is operating. Or two, they might have fears that precautions aren’t being taken, which they absolutely are.

Have you seen an increase in domestic violence cases since the outbreak began?

In the month of March, comparing 2019 and 2020, there’s been an 18 percent increase in calls to CMPD. There’s also been an 80 percent increase in shooting into an occupied dwelling cases, which means a gun was fired at another person inside the house. You can connect the dots with everyone being stuck at home, with pressures and stresses of what’s going on, to why that’s the case.

In the midst of an outbreak, how are you handling cases that require splitting up couples or families?

There is always the possibility of splitting someone up from their house or evicting someone. So you have to ask questions, and I’ve done that every time: ‘Where will you be staying? Do you have a place to go?’ And honestly those questions were put in place beforehand.

As a judge, you want to know that. You want to know that if you have to split up a family because of a threat to violence, that the other person, even if they are a perpetrator of violence, that they have somewhere to go.

Have you dealt with any families who needed to be split up but said ‘No, I don’t have any place to go?’ because of the outbreak?

I fortunately have not yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

What kind of cases would you normally see but are being postponed because of the pandemic?

On a normal week, I would have a lot more child custody, child support, standard divorce, and equitable distribution, which is the separation of property. Those cases aren’t deemed emergency. We’re still hearing custody cases if there’s an allegation of abuse or another issue. If it’s a standard case where we have grandma coming to testify and someone’s babysitter coming to testify, we just can’t do that right now. (We’re) looking into some digital options. It’s just something that has never been needed before.

Editor’s note: North Carolina’s judicial branch put out guidelines and recommendations for families dealing with non-emergency child custody concerns.

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