April 01, 2014 Introduction

Domestic Violence Cases: A Highly Emotional, Volatile Judicial Caseload

By Judge Stephanie Domitrovich

I admire judges in domestic violence court because of the highly emotional and volatile nature of their caseloads. In domestic violence cases, observers can easily feel frustrated with victims who may walk bravely through the courtroom doors, but then ask to withdraw their protective orders. Judges hear victims testify to myriad reasons for withdrawing their petitions for protective orders only to see the victims soon return for new protective orders against the same abuser.

Judges with training and experience in domestic violence understand and confront these challenges every day. They recognize that victims are entitled to make their own choices, including returning to their abusive partners. They understand that victims’ attempts to leave abusers are more a process than a single act. Studies indicate that it may take up to six court petitions for a victim to break away from the abuser permanently. For the most part, a victim gains strength and awareness from each domestic violence court appearance; the victim begins to realize the tremendous negative impact domestic violence has, not only on the victim’s life but also on those closest to the victim such as the most vulnerable—our children.

Judges in domestic violence court address their caseloads expeditiously and effectively by making vital decisions to safeguard many of their constituents both inside and outside the courtrooms. They tailor their protective orders to each case’s unique factual circumstances and the needs of the parties. These judges are precise in structuring their orders to be consistent with the purposes and mandates of the legislation in their locale. Judges are particularly painstaking to ensure that custody orders are clear and concise when children are involved.

Judges in domestic violence court must also appear serious on the bench. When courts find defendants “abusive,” as that term is legislatively defined, judges must inform perpetrators that abusive behavior is not acceptable and the court’s orders will be fully enforced if violated. Perpetrators are more likely to respect the court’s orders when judges take a serious stance. When victims petition the court for protection, domestic violence becomes the court’s jurisdiction, not “just a family concern.” By maintaining serious demeanors, judges reinforce the important principle that domestic violence cases merit the court’s attention and time.

Domestic violence court judges are also community leaders bringing together many varied groups to address community crisis issues. Judges fulfill vital leadership roles consistent with their judicial ethics rules in order to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice. Judges are taught through courses at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) to form task forces within their communities for the effective and efficient administration of domestic violence cases. Judges thereby sponsor and facilitate communication among many stakeholders—law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, domestic violence advocates, probation officers, victim-witness specialists, public defenders, private defense attorneys, court clerks, and mental health professionals. Domestic violence task forces address significant issues such as providing adequate access to justice, ensuring effective court security, enforcing statutory and case law compliance, and responding to the needs of diverse communities.

Judges who work in this volatile area of the law should be recognized and commended for their strength and understanding of the litigants before their courts. Because the difficult work of domestic violence court judges can be isolating, judges are encouraged to join their statewide and national judicial colleagues who are members of the National Conference of State Trial Judges (NCSTJ) and the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges (NCSCJ) of the ABA Judicial Division. Judicial members of these conferences work diligently to provide judges with networking opportunities and projects to develop best practices for managing domestic violence caseloads.

This spring edition of our The Judges’ Journal includes articles written by experienced authors who have developed domestic violence and mental health courts in their jurisdictions, handled domestic violence concerns of Native American citizens, dealt with the growing concern of elder abuse, prosecuted cases without victim testimony at the time of trial, and asserted the important role of judges in ending domestic violence.

The articles demonstrate the important roles domestic violence court judges serve in our communities. We dedicate this edition to domestic violence judges for their work and devotion to the safety and protection of all constituents, as these judges are our front line of justice.