A Charlotte judge was accused of domestic violence. Then the court file was hidden.

A local judge was accused of domestic violence in a court filing. After the allegations were made, the case file disappeared from the courthouse shelves.
Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 11:26 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 11, 2022 at 6:31 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - If you walk into the Civil Division of the Mecklenburg County Clerk of Court’s office on any given day, the room is full of people coming and going, there to look at a court file, make copies or get an official record.

North Carolina’s court system still runs almost entirely on paper, which means the only way you can access information about a case is to go to the courthouse and ask to see the documents.

But one court case in Mecklenburg County has been hidden from public view, a WBTV investigation has found. The case involves a sitting judge who is accused, in a legal filing, of domestic violence. Instead of sitting on the shelves for staff to access and provide to the public, the file sits locked in the office of Elisa Chinn-Gary, Mecklenburg County’s elected Clerk of Court.

District Court Judge Kimberly Best filed a lawsuit in November 2019 against a woman she alleged had an affair with her ex-husband, Randall Staton, while Best and Staton were still married.

The lawsuit sought more than $25,000 from the woman for alienation of affection.

In response, the woman who was sued by Best, asked a judge to dismiss the claims. Among the allegations the woman included in her response to the lawsuit was that Best was verbally and physically abusive to Staton while the couple were married.

“Upon information and belief, Plaintiff was physically abusive towards Randall. On more than one occasion, Plaintiff forcibly grabbed, pushed, or punched Randall, leaving bruises on Randall’s arm,” the court filing said of Best, the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“Twice during the marriage, Plaintiff aggressively approached Randall while holding a firearm and accused Randall of committing marital misconduct. Plaintiff claimed she grabbed the gun because she feared that Randall was an intruder; however, Plaintiff continued to hold onto the gun after Randall identified himself and disabled the alarm code. Plaintiff once kicked a hole in the parties’ bathroom door, after Randall locked himself inside to get away from Plaintiff’s violence.”

Later in the filing, the woman claimed Best had also been verbally abusive to Staton.

“Plaintiff routinely called Randall names, like ‘bitch ass n****’ and ‘punk motherfucker.’ Plaintiff often threatened Randall with physical violence and financial ruin, both directly and indirectly,” the legal filing said.

Clerk keeps case file out of public reach

The allegations were made in a legal filing on February 3, 2020. Best filed a motion asking a judge to seal the entire court file on February 25, 2020.

That motion was denied after a hearing held days later in front of Judge Jesse Caldwell, who, at the time, was a Superior Court Judge from Gaston County.

“Plaintiff contended that various assertions made in the Answer filed by the Defendant are false, scandalous, defamatory and paint Plaintiff in an unfavorable light whereby her professional and personal reputation could be irreparably harmed, Loss of Employment, Emotional Distress, Damage to Re-election efforts and scrutiny of past decisions based on the false allegations in Defendant’s answer,” Caldwell wrote, characterizing Best’s request to have the file sealed.

But Caldwell denied the motion to seal the file, ruling that the First Amendment guarantees access to most court proceedings.

As a result, the file was to continue to be accessible to the public.

Related: Citizens kept in the dark as court holds hearings with no public notice

Despite Caldwell’s order ruling that the file would remain public, a WBTV investigation has found the public hasn’t been able to access the file.

Over three days in early October 2021, a WBTV reporter tried to look at the court file by going to the Civil Division window and asking to see the file.

The first day, a staffer said the file was not on the shelf and that there were no notes in the computer showing where the file might be.

The next day, a second staff member told the reporter that the file was not on the shelf and could not be located. The staff member said a supervisor gave instructions for the reporter to call a third staffer in the clerk’s office, who reportedly had checked the file out.

On the third day, when a reporter contacted the third staff member, the reporter was told that staff member did not have the court file and did not know where it was.

WBTV was only able to access the court file by emailing Jessica Davis, a deputy clerk who works directly for Chinn-Gary. Davis agreed to make the file available for review the next day.

When a WBTV reporter looked at the file, it had a note on the file folder directing that it be returned to a supervisor.

Related: Transparency delayed as Mecklenburg Co. courts fail to schedule hearings on police video

A WBTV reporter went back to the courthouse on December 7, 2021 to try and view the court file. Again, the reporter was told the file was not available.

In addition to the First Amendment, which requires courts be open, North Carolina law requires court records be accessible to the public.

Specifically, N.C. General Statute § 7A-109(a) requires that “each clerk of court shall maintain court records, files, dockets and indexes” and further requires the records “shall be open to the inspection of the public during regular office hours.”

Court records are also public under Article I, Section 18 of the North Carolina Constitution and the North Carolina Public Records Act, N.C.G.S. 132.

Chinn-Gary would not answer questions from WBTV but Davis, her spokeswoman, disputed the notion that the case file was kept from the public.

“Access to this court file is not, nor has it ever been, restricted,” Davis said in an email. “Our records will clearly indicate that the file was located and timely made available upon receipt of the request. Any statement to the contrary is false, misleading and lacks journalistic integrity.”

In a follow-up email, Davis defended the fact that a case file was kept in Chinn-Gary’s office and not in an area where it could be accessed for public viewing.

“As to the location of files, it is not unlawful, unethical or inappropriate for the Elected Clerk, statutorily charged to protect the security of original documents, to have files in his or her office,” Davis said.

“In fact, it is both necessary and commonplace for the Clerk or agents of the Clerk to be in possession of court files. As the custodian of the record, Clerks exclusively facilitate access of court files whether requested by a member of the public or other court partners to include the judiciary.”

But one leading open records expert in North Carolina disagreed with the assertion from Chinn-Gary’s office.

Brooks Fuller, an attorney who runs the N.C. Sunshine Center, said court files should be made available to the public upon request nearly all of the time.

“If court is open and you can go into the courthouse, you should be able to request the file from a clerk and get it in the matter of time that it takes to locate it on the shelves, it shouldn’t be that hard,” Fuller said.

“The fact that someone has been going to the courthouse day upon day and that this is stretched over the course of a month or more to try to locate a court file definitely presents a problem for open courts.”

Best appointed to higher court, despite allegations

In addition to the allegations made in the court filing, records from the Mint Hill Police Department show Staton also called police to the couple’s home multiple times to report incidents with Best.

Police records show officers were called to the couple’s home seven times in a six month period between mid-July 2016 and mid-January 2017.

One report, written by an officer who was called to the house on July 22, 2016, Staton reported that Best “picked up a pair of scissors and said ‘Get the fuck away from me!’”

Weeks later, Staton called the police to the house again. According to a report of the incident, Staton said “he no longer felt comfortable in his own home” and said Best “called him a ‘Stupid Bitch’ and advised him that ‘I told you not to fuck with me!’”

In response to a request for an interview or comment for this story, an attorney for Best, Charles Everage, threatened to sue the station if it published this story.

In a statement accompanying the legal threat, Everage said Best was the victim of domestic violence.

“In the divorce and other criminal proceedings, Judge Best, like many spouses affected by violence, did report being a victim of domestic violence and stalking,” the statement said.

Criminal records provided by Everage show Staton was charged with misdemeanor cyberstalking after Best took a warrant out with a magistrate. According to the charging documents, Staton placed a tracking device on a vehicle Best drove.

The case records show the charges were dismissed as part of a deal in which Staton agreed to take a psychiatric evaluation and had no contact with Best for a limited period of time.

“Judge best still has concerns for her safety and privacy,” Everage said.

A review of court records—including divorce proceedings filed in Cabarrus County and, separately, Mecklenburg County, as well as the alienation of affection lawsuit Best filed in 2019—found no allegation by Best that she was a victim of domestic violence, despite the claim in her lawyer’s statement.

Police records also do not show Best ever reported being the victim of domestic violence.

Best was appointed to a seat in Superior Court—one step above District Court—in late November by Governor Roy Cooper.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the appointment process tell WBTV Cooper’s office was aware of the domestic violence allegations against Best but chose to appoint her anyways.

Multiple emails to Cooper’s press office seeking comment on the decision went unanswered.

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