Dozens of families in limbo as Mecklenburg Co. judge takes years to enter orders

Dozens of families in limbo as Meck. Co. judge takes years to enter orders

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – A District Court judge in Mecklenburg County has taken years to enter orders in dozens of cases, leaving families in limbo.

Judge Aretha Blake presided over 52 cases in 2017—the year she took the bench—that are still waiting orders. All of the cases involve disputes arising from a divorce proceeding, primarily child support and child custody issues.

For a judge’s ruling to take effect, it must be reduced to writing, signed by a judge and filed with the clerk.

For a case involving child support, for instance, one parent is not required to pay the other parent child support until a judge has signed a written order and that order has been filed with the clerk, even if a judge announced a decision from the bench.

Blake has not faced any discipline or public consequences as a result of not entering the orders.

Records show she was moved from presiding over family court cases to hearing juvenile cases roughly two years ago.

Despite that, Blake still maintains control of most of the 52 family law cases that are still awaiting orders from 2017.

Court of Appeals enters order forcing Blake to rule

Blake’s backlog has prompted action from the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which entered an order in July 2018 directing Blake to enter an order in one case that had stretched more than a year without a judgement being entered.

According to the Court of Appeals order, the plaintiff first asked for a Writ of Mandamus—a legal procedure by which a party seeks to enforce a legal right through the court system—from the Court of Appeals to force Blake to enter an order in late February 2018. At the time of the first petition, the case had been pending for more than nine months.

Emails and letters filed with the writ show attorneys in both sides of the case had emailed Blake regularly during that time period asking for a status on when she anticipated entering an order. Both lawyers had provided draft orders for her to use.

Despite that, Blake didn’t rule.

In response to the first writ filed in February 2018, the Court of Appeals denied the petition but said attorneys should re-file the petition if Blake didn’t rule within 60 days.

Blake didn’t rule and lawyers filed another petition months later, in June 2018, more than a year after the trial.

“This Court repeatedly attempted to contact the Family Court Coordinator assigned to the Respondent District Court Judge but did not receive a response,” the Court of Appeals order granting the writ said.

“Accordingly, the petition for a writ of mandamus is allowed. It is hereby ordered that the District Court of Mecklenburg County shall issue an appropriate written order on the claims tried at the May 2017 hearing within thirty days of the entry of this order,” the order said.

Records show Blake entered an order weeks after the Court of Appeals ruling. As part of her ruling, she ordered the party whose attorney sought the writ to pay $500,000 in attorneys fees to the opposing party, who did not seek the writ at the Court of Appeals.

Litigants, lawyers fear retaliation for speaking out

WBTV contacted more than a dozen people—lawyers and litigants—for this story, in an effort to find someone to interview on the record about their experience waiting years on Blake to enter an order in their case.

Nobody would agree to talk on the record. Each person cited a fear that they would face retaliation from Blake for speaking about the impact her years-long delay in entering an order in their case has had on their lives.

One woman did agree to talk with WBTV on the condition she not be identified.

“I’m absolutely terrified,” the woman said when asked if she was afraid of what would happen if Blake knew she was talking with WBTV. “Because of the retaliation that I feel sure that she would bring.”

Blake held a trial in 2017 to determine how much child support to award in the woman’s divorce.

To date, the woman has not received an order and has spent more than two years raising three children without any child support.

Without that money, the woman said, her life has been driven into financial ruin.

“Since we’ve had to wait so long, every month those credit card balances just get higher and higher and higher and there’s no end in sight,” she said.

“Because of not receiving child support, I’ve had to, well, not only go deeply in debt that I never would have had to do had she entered a child support order, I’ve had to shop for clothes for my kids at Goodwill, I’ve had to, you know, do the majority or a lot of shopping at dollar stores, you know, because that was all I could afford,” she said.

Until we called for this story, the woman did not know her case was one of 52 in which Blake had not entered an order.

“I had no idea,” she said. “When I did hear that, it made me even more shocked that she had been allowed to get away with doing this. I mean, she’s an elected official that was elected to do a job and, apparently, has decided she wasn’t going to do her job and, so, 52 families are suffering as a result of that.”

Records show short workdays, Blake won’t answer questions

Courthouse security records show Blake rarely spends a full eight-hours at the courthouse.

WBTV obtained courthouse swipe logs covering October 1, 2019 through January 23, 2020—showing the hours during which Blake was at the courthouse—through a public records request.

The courthouse was open a total of 74 days in that four-month period, accounting for various holidays.

The logs show Blake was at the courthouse just eight or more hours on 14 days in that period.

Roughly a third of the time, records show, Blake was at the courthouse fewer than six hours in that same period.

WBTV requested an on-camera interview with Blake to answer questions about her work schedule and her years-long delay in entering orders in the 52 cases she heard in 2017.

Blake did not respond to multiple emails seeking to schedule an on-camera interview and had ignored multiple other emails from a WBTV reporter before that seeking public records as part of this investigation.

A WBTV reporter attempted to ask Blake questions before a public event on Tuesday. Blake refused to answer any questions. But that same afternoon, a courthouse spokeswoman sent a statement defending Blake’s work schedule by pointing out the number of days in which she was at the courthouse for at least six hours.

“Regarding attendance, a Judge’s work extends beyond the courthouse walls. In addition to their court dockets and schedules, they are often chairing committees related to their area of judicial oversight, attending or facilitating at conferences and workshops, or (as relevant to our Juvenile Court judges) holding court at off-site facilities. Badge swipes into and out of the building are not a reliable source of “tracking” an employee’s hours.” the statement said, without providing any alternate records tracking Blake’s work hours or suggesting a reporter refer to an alternate source of information.

“Judge Blake was only scheduled to be at the courthouse for 47 of those 74 days. Of the total 47 days, Judge Blake was scheduled to be present in this building, she was present for six hours or more on 40 instances,” the statement said.

The statement did not offer an explanation as to why Blake had not entered orders in 52 cases she heard in 2017.

WBTV has also made records requests of Blake, Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Elisa Chinn Gary and the Mecklenburg County Trial Court Administrator, who reports to Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller.

The requests seek additional records that would help paint a better picture of Blake’s work load, the time she spends working—whether at the courthouse or elsewhere—and the full amount of time she spends in court.

To date, none of the requests have been fulfilled in their entirety. The Trial Court Administrator said on Thursday that many of the court calendars requested by WBTV are not public record.

A spokeswoman for Chinn Gary has previously told WBTV the station’s request was being processed but has also refused to provide records related to Blake’s cases outside of what’s in the publicly available court files.

Blake has yet to provide any response to WBTV’s records request.

Copyright 2020 WBTV. All rights reserved.