Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. Courts

10/01/1996

Specialization in the court system is less common, with consolidated dockets for protection orders being more common than for criminal cases. Even rarer is consolidation of all matters (or at least all civil matters) involving the same principals, such as divorce, property settlement, child custody, visitation, and domestic violence. Four sites have a consolidated docket or calendar for protection orders, although the features vary across the sites. San Francisco has a domestic violence calendar for protection orders every other week. In Baltimore, one judge is designated the "duty judge" to hear all requests for protection orders in domestic violence cases every day from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. In Kansas City, a full-time judge is assigned to the consolidated docket for protection orders. Since the Missouri statute for protection orders is so generous (allowing for child custody and support in the order), having a permanent judge was viewed as particularly important for consistency.

Only two sites (Kansas City and San Diego) have any specialization within the courts for criminal domestic violence cases, although Baltimore plans to establish a Domestic Violence Court in the near future. In San Diego, one judge handles pre-trial matters for all domestic violence misdemeanors. Kansas City has made the most sweeping changes in this area by creating a special docket in the Municipal Court, where the vast majority of domestic violence cases are tried. Creating this docket was viewed by many as a cornerstone of this community's efforts, but it was also strongly opposed by a number of judges. The consolidated docket allows for better victim advocacy services, since advocates previously had to staff multiple courtrooms. In addition, many people feel that it has vastly improved the consistency with which domestic violence cases are handled. A judge in one site suggested a consolidated docket for domestic violence cases a couple of years ago, but many judges opposed the idea because they want to be generalists and find it too difficult to handle only one type of case. They were also concerned that if there were a single judge, attorneys (both for the prosecution and defense) would question the individual's impartiality in these cases.

Some courts assign a permanent judge to preside over the consolidated docket, while others rotate judges into the position. This can have implications for the effectiveness of the docket. In Kansas City, the docket in Municipal Court initially rotated every six months, and the handling of cases varied tremendously depending on which judge was assigned to the docket. A permanent, full-time judge was later designated to ameliorate this problem. In several communities, changes in the court's response resulted from the actions of an individual judge who is particularly sensitive to this issue. For example, some judges institute a policy in their courtrooms to require defendants to wait in the courtroom while the victim leaves.

Minnesota has integrated its court system, to incorporate civil, criminal, and juvenile courts. This makes it possible for a judge in one court to access information from proceedings in other courts. For example, if a domestic violence offender is on trial in criminal court for an assault or in civil court for violating a child support order, the judge hearing the misdemeanor domestic violence case could access this information. However, this information is not always used, since a judge must actively seek out the information about a case.