For battered and threatened women, it’s a terrifying but critical step: walk into a courtroom, stand near your abuser and ask the judge who is sitting above you for a restraining order.
Just how judges in Montgomery County react has been studied for three years by CourtWatch Montgomery, which will release its latest report Thursday. Its observers found that the county’s Circuit Court judges treat women well — they’re polite, they’re respectful — but they don’t always send a strong enough message to the alleged abusers.
In 47 percent of hearings, CourtWatch found, the men weren’t told that they could go to jail if they violate a restraining order. In 55 percent of hearings, they weren’t told that they must surrender their firearms.
Such warnings and admonishments are critical to the process.
“They cost nothing and take very little time, but they’re very important,” said Laurie Duker, a co-founder of CourtWatch, a non-profit watchdog group of volunteers who have watched hundreds of restraining order hearings.
●In cases when a woman decided to withdraw her request, judges didn’t always follow up with questions. Nearly 40 percent of the time, for instance, judges didn’t ask the women whether they had been coerced into dropping the request.
●In an overwhelming number of hearings, judges didn’t give basic instructions from the outset on what can become confusing legal issues. While it can be difficult for judges to provide this information given time constraints, the judges didn’t make use of what other courthouses do: have a clerk play a prerecorded audio or video message, in English and Spanish, before the judge takes the bench.
●In a third of all hearings, judges and courtroom sheriff’s deputies didn’t fully employ “staggered exits,” which allow a victim to leave the courtroom 15 minutes ahead of the respondent. Creating such a window is critical because emotions often run high after the court hearings.
Montgomery Sheriff Darren Popkin said he will speak with the administrative judge about non-staggered exits. “It’s something that we will work on to provide an added level of safety,” he said.
CourtWatch assesses courthouse personnel beyond judges — sheriff’s deputies, bailiffs, clerks, language interpreters. The group also observes hearings for restraining orders (known in Maryland domestic cases as protective orders) that are sought by men. But the overwhelming majority are sought by women.
“Do they work all the time? No,” Duker said. “But the vast majority of orders do keep women safe.”
In its latest report, CourtWatch complimented the demeanor of the judges in 93 percent of cases.
“Circuit Court judges, like their District Court counterparts, have difficult jobs handling complex and sometimes heartbreaking cases of intimate partner violence,” CourtWatch wrote in its report. “As a whole, judges were polite and used language that both parties could understand.”
Duker noted that Montgomery Circuit Court Judge John Debelius, who serves as the circuit’s top administrative judge, has been open to the monitoring and willing to work with CourtWatch. On Wednesday, Debelius said he had not had a chance to read all of the report’s findings.
“We appreciate constructive criticism,” Debelius said. “To the extent that we, as judges, can improve what we are doing and serve the public better, I am certainly interested in our doing that.”