Watchdog group critiques Montgomery County judges who issue restraining orders

October 2, 2011

Five years ago, Laurie Duker took a job helping abused women get restraining orders in Montgomery County. What she saw stunned her: Some judges belittled people or didn’t give women the protection Duker thought they needed. The final straw, she said, was when a judge asked a man where he was from, heard “El Salvador” and said from the bench: “Figures.”

So Duker quit and started a watchdog group. Over six months, she and 24 other volunteers observed 642 restraining-order hearings to critique the judges and the system. The group plans to release its first report Monday at a news conference.

The volunteers did not see any cases that ended tragically, in which a woman was killed or critically injured after being denied a protective order.

But for victims of domestic violence, simply seeking help from the courts can be an emotionally charged, even desperate, step. In too many cases, the group found, judges made it even more difficult.

Although most of the judges were respectful, the monitors identified four as regularly rude — conduct that the monitors say could discourage women from returning to court. According to the group, one judge said to a petitioner: “Christ! Did you not read the form?” Another questioned a woman’s assertion that her abuser was high on PCP: “Do you have a degree in chemistry?”


Judy Whiton, left, and Laurie Duker, right, run Court Watch Montgomery, which monitors restraining order hearings in Montgomery County. (Daniel Morse/WASHINGTON POST)

More than half the time, judges failed to tell men that violating a restraining order was a crime and that they had to surrender any firearms. Judges rarely had victims leave the courthouse ahead of the person they had just accused of abuse — a recommended practice in the tense moments after a hearing.

The group, which calls itself Court Watch Montgomery, aims to improve the system for victims, and it recommended continuing education for judges who must sort through what can be tangled cases. The group told local judges last year that it would not name names in its first report. Court Watch plans to identify judges and their specific conduct in a follow-up report next year.

“I think we should set them up for success. I hope they’re heroes. We’ll see where we are in six months,” said Duker, 54, who has an MBA from Yale University, is married to a political pollster and studies insects as a hobby.

More than 30 similar domestic violence court-monitoring groups are working throughout the country, taking a page from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which monitors how judges handle drunken driving cases. The District also has a restraining-order monitoring program, which released a 2007 report that was generally favorable regarding most of the judges’ demeanors.

The Montgomery volunteers are college students, doctoral candidates and retirees, including two former lawyers, a former social worker and a onetime quality control chemist from the U.S. Mint. They work at both of Montgomery’s district courthouses, in Rockville and Silver Spring, sitting among abused women and accused men, filling out four-page forms as each case is heard.

Judges and bailiffs know them by the small blue lapel buttons that read: “Court Watch Montgomery. A public eye on domestic violence.”

The group delivered a copy of its report to the judicial headquarters in Rockville on Friday afternoon. Judge Eugene Wolfe, administrative judge for the county’s 11 district judges, said Friday evening that he had not had a chance to review the findings.

Court Watch went to Wolfe last year to explain what it was doing. “We had no opposition to it, of course,” Wolfe said.

He said that he couldn’t comment on Court Watch’s findings until he read the report but that feedback could be helpful for judges. “I think you can learn things from that,” Wolfe said.

About 3,000 people, mostly women, seek restraining orders against a partner or former partner each year in Montgomery, officials said.

Many judges want to grant the orders, aware of cases such as Mark Castillo’s. In late 2006, his wife asked Montgomery courts to bar him from her home, where their three children lived. A judge denied the request, owing partly to Maryland’s unusually high legal bar of having to show “clear and convincing” evidence when seeking long-term restraining orders.

Three months later, Castillo took the children to a Baltimore hotel and drowned them, one by one, in a bathtub. He was sentenced to life in prison for their murders.

“Some judges are more careful than others. But as I whole, I think they are pretty careful,” said Hannah Sassoon, director of Montgomery County’s Family Justice Center.

Court Watch concluded that people were treated with respect in 89 percent of restraining order cases. The group said that just a few of the 11 judges accounted for the bulk of rude treatment and singled out four who it said were disrespectful in at least one in six cases. Three of those judges, it said, were of particular concern.

“The problems here went beyond minor issues such as lack of eye contact or occasional shortness of temper,” Court Watch wrote. “Rather, behaviors included yelling, scolding parties, being sarcastic or belittling.”

In 85 percent of the cases, the report found, judges did not enlist a nationally recommended practice of allowing a victim to leave the courthouse 15 minutes before the offender. One woman later said her alleged abuser and his new girlfriend tried to hit her with a car outside the courthouse.

And in 99 percent of cases, women waiting outside courtrooms were unprotected from the alleged abusers, Court Watch concluded.

Each time a trained volunteer watched a hearing, he or she filled out forms to collect basic information and assess the demeanor of the judge, bailiffs and clerks. The forms asked whether a judge treated both parties with courtesy and respect, whether the judge clearly explained the details of the restraining order, and whether he or she asked if there was a history of violence in the relationship.

In one case Duker observed in June, she noted on the form that the judge had been respectful in the courtroom but sent the woman and her accused abuser out of the hearing at the same time. In the waiting area, Duker wrote, the man approached the woman and “stood over her talking angrily.” There was no bailiff to intervene, Duker wrote.

In another case, she described what the female petitioner alleged: “Threats to kill Petitioner and child.” But the judge “seemed annoyed by case. Mad when petitioner asked about child support,” Duker wrote.

In a hearing months later, she praised a different judge. “Great, Judge went out of [the] way to make sure the order covered everything the petitioner needed.”

Duker and others in Court Watch said some fixes that cost little or nothing could make a big difference. They recommend staggering the exits of the victim and suspect after each hearing and creating a video explaining the restraining-order process — in both English and Spanish — to play before a judge takes the bench.

Effecting change drives Court Watch’s volunteers. In November, Ricky Ressin had just retired from a risk-management company when she saw a notice looking for volunteers in a Gaithersburg library.

Now the 70-year-old grandmother of six goes to the courthouse in downtown Rockville once a week. “I just love going to court and observing and writing my notes,” Ressin said, “in hopes it will help women.”

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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