Families still waiting for family court orders, despite judge’s denials

Updated: Feb. 29, 2020 at 6:20 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) –Families are still waiting on court orders to be entered in family law cases heard in front of Judge Aretha Blake.

Blake was elected to a seat in Mecklenburg County District Court in 2016 and took the bench in January 2017.

Since then, according to a review of court files, interviews with litigants who have appeared in her courtroom and in talking with multiple confidential sources, Blake has taken months and, in some cases, years to enter orders.

In her first two years on the bench, Blake was assigned to family court, hearing divorce-related matters, including child custody, child support and post-separation support.

WBTV first reported in early February that Blake had not entered orders in dozens of cases that she heard in court as far back as 2017.

Blake refused to answer questions for that story but was quick to push back against the story afterwards.

“Our community heavily relies on the local media to report the truth and inform the general public about matters that personally affect their daily lives,” Blake, who is running for re-election this year, wrote in a letter to campaign supporters the day after the WBTV story aired.

“It is appalling that WBTV would show reckless disregard for the truth and fall subject to politically driven reporting that misinforms the public just one week prior to a crucial election,” the letter continued.

Nearly two weeks later, on February 20, the Black Political Caucus held a press conference in support of Blake, who attended the event but did not speak herself.

“Mister Ochsner attempted to discredit Judge Blake’s commitment, service, care and concern for the people of this community,” BPC Chairman Khalif Rhodes said. “These allegations are false, unsubstantiated, unfounded and demonstrate a lack of journalistic integrity.”

At the press conference, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake called on WBTV and other media outlets to “report the truth” about Blake and her work as a judge.

“I wept all night last night thinking about what I was going to say and I pray that the news media will not get it mixed,” she said.

“Print the truth! Get the truth!” she continued before saying she would call for a boycott of any media outlet that didn’t print what she deemed to be the truth.

WBTV reviewed hundreds of files

In light of Blake’s denials and a “cease and desist” demand sent by her lawyer, WBTV asked for her to provide the signed orders, explaining that WBTV was committed to accurate reporting and was willing to update its story. When Blake and her lawyer did not respond, WBTV undertook additional reporting. As part of that effort, journalists from the station reviewed more than 100 case files of cases heard by Blake in 2017 and 2018 that were included in a list of outstanding cases compiled in January 2019 by a deputy clerk assigned to Blake.

The list included specific motions that Blake had heard and the dates on which the motions had been heard.

Using that list as a guide, the WBTV journalists reviewed the case files—still maintained entirely on paper—for orders matching the motion and hearing dates specified on that list.

That review found dozens of cases in which an order could not be located—a finding supported by conversations with multiple confidential sources—including cases Blake and her supporters maintained had no outstanding orders. The review also found two orders in cases Blake heard in 2017 that were entered on February 10, days after WBTV’s first story aired.

The absence of a file-stamped order in a case file is significant because a judge’s order does not take effect—even if a ruling is announced from the bench—until it is reduced to writing, signed by the judge and filed with the clerk.

In the process of conducting its review of the case files, WBTV requested access to every case file included on the former clerk’s list.

WBTV struggled for several weeks to access the case files it requested for review. A spokeswoman for Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Elisa Chinn-Gary told a WBTV reporter that all cases files included on the list would be available for inspection on Monday, February 11.

But a review that day of the files provided by the clerk’s office found 48 files on the list missing.

After follow-up from a WBTV reporter, the clerk’s office spokeswoman said the missing files would be provided two days later, on February 13.

That day, two WBTV journalists reviewed the provided files and found 17 of the listed case files still missing.

WBTV staff was not able to inspect the remaining files until February 24. By that point, the clerk’s office had restricted reporters’ access to the files to just five case files at a time. Previously, WBTV staff had been provided a cart with all case files that they could wheel to a spot in the file room for review.

During a visit to the clerk’s office file room on February 27, clerk’s office staff refused to provide a WBTV reporter escorted access to the area where the files were being stored to inspect large box files and see where the paper files were being physically kept.

WBTV’s review of Judge Blake’s case files remains ongoing.

In light of the station’s additional reporting, WBTV requested comment from Blake on Monday, February 24 for a story it planned to air that Thursday.

The email requesting an interview or comment was sent to Blake and her lawyer. It explained what WBTV had found so far in its additional case file review.

On Tuesday, February 25, Blake filed a lawsuit against WBTV and sought a temporary restraining order seeking to prevent the station from running its planned story.

In court, Walter Bowers, a lawyer for Blake, said WBTV’s reporting was false and defamatory.

During a hearing before a Superior Court judge on Blake’s request for a temporary restraining order, Bowers held up an expandable folder that he claimed contained orders Blake had signed in cases WBTV had reported were missing orders.

“This court would have the ability, excuse me, would have the ability to look at all 52–and we can stay here all night–I have nothing else to do – to look at these,” he told the court.

A judge denied Blake’s request for a temporary restraining order on Wednesday, citing the First Amendment, which prohibits courts from restricting speech in nearly all cases.

After the hearing, a lawyer for WBTV offered Bowers, Blake’s attorney, an opportunity to meet with WBTV staff to review their findings of the case review.

“We want to make it very clear that WBTV is again offering the opportunity to hear from her and is eager to discuss the cases at issue,” attorney Jon Buchan wrote Bowers on behalf of WBTV.

Ultimately, Bowers declined a meeting to discuss WBTV’s findings and review case files.

“It does not appear that we will have anyone available to meet with Nick afterall (sic),” Bowers responded to Buchan on Thursday, after previously indicating a meeting was possible.

The 26th Judicial District issues a statement

That same day, a statement was issued by the Mecklenburg County Trial Court Administrator on behalf of Judicial District 26 calling WBTV’s reporting into question.

“The Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court’s Office and Family Court Administrator’s Office performed a review of the fifty-two (52) cases and determined that every file contains an order entered by Judge Blake,” the statement said.

“Eight (8) cases have orders that were entered in 2019. All the other cases have orders that were entered in 2018 and 2017, within months of the hearing,” the statement continued.

In the wake of the statement, WBTV’s News Director, Kim Saxon, offered to meet with the Clerk of Court and Trial Court Administrator to review the station’s findings and Blake’s case files but received no response.

But one woman—whose case for child support was heard by Blake in 2017 and who still hasn’t received an order—disputed the claims made in the statement.

“It made me sick to my stomach,” the woman, who asked not to be identified because she feared retaliation from Blake for speaking out, said after reading the statement.

“The way that I read it, it was deliberately misleading to make it sound to the public that this was all just a big mistake, that she’d done everything that she was supposed to do,” the woman said. “But it was worded in a way that anyone who has – any person who is familiar with the process would know that it was not true.”

“Have you gotten an order in your case?” a WBTV reporter asked the woman.

“No,” the woman said.

“When you hear her say she has no outstanding orders, what does that make you think?” the reporter asked.

“That she’s not telling the truth, at least not about our case,” the woman said.

The Best Practices and Guidelines manual for North Carolina’s Unified Family Courts gives guidelines for how long a judge should take to enter an order in family court.

“All orders should be filed within (30) days following the conclusion of a hearing,” the manual says. “A judge may allow additional time to file an order in complex cases.”

North Carolina state law requires a tighter timeline for child custody cases.

“NCGS 50-32 requires that all child support cases be completed within 60 days,” the manual says.

But that wasn’t the case for Karin Conroy, who waited 22 months for Blake to enter an order for temporary child support and other relief in her divorce case.

The first hearing in Conroy’s case was in February 2017. Blake did not file an order in the case until December 2018.

“Bringing it to court was my decision – to seek closure and an end and a resolution. And we did not get that. We have not gotten that,” Conroy said.

For a period while she waited for Blake to enter an order—between April 2017 and September 2017—court records show, Conroy’s ex-husband did not pay any child support or post-separation support, which left the stay-at-home mother of four with virtually no income.

“I had many sleepless nights. I slept with a bucket next to my bed. I would wake up in the middle of the night vomiting,” she said. “It created an incredible amount of anxiety, depression, sadness, fake happiness around friends and family. Waking up to my children, putting on a front to them.”

Not only did Blake’s delayed ruling cause Conroy emotional turmoil, it cost her a lot of money.

Conroy said she has spent more than $100,000 in attorney fees, nearly all of that, she said, went to pay for her lawyers to follow up with Blake and attend additional hearings on matters brought before the court.

Court officials refuse to produce records, charge thousands of dollars

As part of its investigation, WBTV requested records from multiple sources that would provide additional insight into Blake’s handling of family law cases in District Court.

Among the records WBTV requested were documents from a computer program maintained by the Trial Court Administrator called CaseWise, which tracks every action taken in a family law case.

On February 10, WBTV asked for every CaseWise file for each case included on the list of outstanding orders created in January 2019 by Blake’s former clerk.

“Our staff is working on other requests from you that have produced voluminous records for our review,” Jessica Davis, a spokeswoman for the Trial Court Administrator, responded.

DOCUMENT: Click here to read communication regarding WBTV’s records requests

To date, WBTV has not received any additional response to our request for computer records and has not provided a timeline by which the records will be produced.

WBTV has also requested to inspect Blake’s inbox and sent items folder in Outlook—but not the content of the messages contained therein—and certain emails sent and received by Blake.

In addition, the station requested individual court records from the Clerk of Court’s office related to Blake’s cases.

The North Carolina Public Records Act covers any record created in the transaction of public business, including court system records.

In response to WBTV’s requests, a lawyer for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts has told WBTV the station would have to pay more than $3,800 dollars before the agency would even commence a search for the records.

Lawyers for WBTV have challenged the quoted fees as improper.

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