15 August 2006

Douglas County Still Doesn't Get It

The general assembly hereby finds that the issuance and enforcement of protection orders are of paramount importance . . . .

Colorado Revised Statutes Section 13-14-102(1) (in part).

Last year, Castle Rock, Colorado argued in the U.S. Supreme Court that it had a right to ignore a plea to enforce a temporary restraining order with impunity, despite the statute quoted above, and won. The court clerk's office in Castle Rock isn't much better at hearing the Colorado General Assembly's message about the importance of restraining orders, I learned Friday.

As the syllabus to the Castle Rock decision explains, the facts were, and the U.S. Supreme Court held, as follows (emphasis added):

[I]s police officers, acting pursuant to official policy or custom, failed to respond to her repeated reports over several hours that her estranged husband had taken their three children in violation of her restraining order against him. Ultimately, the husband murdered the children. . . .

Held: Respondent did not, for Due Process Clause purposes, have a property interest in police enforcement of the restraining order against her husband.

Last Friday morning, at about 11:00 a.m., I was in the Douglas County Justice Center, across the street from Castle Rock's town government building.  It appears that the clerk's office is also having trouble implementing the general assembly's mandate regarding restraining orders.

Colorado law on how restraining order requests are to be handled is particularly clear:

A motion for a temporary civil protection order shall be set for hearing, which hearing may be ex parte, at the earliest possible time and shall take precedence over all matters, except those matters of the same character that have been on the court docket for a longer period of time.  The court shall hear all such matters as expeditiously as possible.

Colorado Revised Statutes Section 13-14-102(3).

Some metropolitian area courts take this mandate very seriously. During a multiday civil trial regarding a consumer dispute in the Arapahoe County Court at its location in Aurora a couple of year ago, our trial was interrupted several times a day so the judge could immediately deal with incoming restraining order cases. When a restraining order case came in, the litigants in our case got a rest break for ten or fifteen minutes, while this higher priority business could be addressed.

Douglas County wasn't taking this approach on Friday. A woman had made her way to the front of the line. She was pleading with the clerk that she had been beaten seriously by the person she was seeking the protection from, that she feared for her life, and that she needed a restraining order. She didn't have a lawyer.

The clerk advised her, at about 11:00 a.m., that it would take twenty minutes to put the information into the computer, and that there was no way that all the other cases on the docket in the court could be disturbed, and that Douglas County judges and clerks took their lunch breaks very seriously. So, there was no way that her case could be heard before that afternoon.

But, the women pleaded that it would be a huge burden for her to come in the afternoon, as she needed to be at work and could lose her job. The clerk told her she should have come earlier in the morning, and that if she couldn't come in that afternoon, that she could come back on Monday, three long days away.

I wasn't there to see how it would be resolved, but there was no supervisor on hand to intervene, and it certainly looked like this woman in need of protection would be turned away on that Friday morning.

Admittedly, the problem is not really a result of malicious disregard for the law. TABOR budget cuts have resulted in every court house in the state laying off large numbers of court clerks and court reporters, and putting those who remain on unpaid leave for part of the year. In Jefferson County, the judges passed the hat among themselves to help financially strapped clerks trying to meet their expenses with reduced paychecks.

Douglas County was no different, prominently advertising the reduced hours and services available as a result of budget cuts on a sign next to the clerk's windows. The Elbert County court clerk's area was completely unstaffed. And, there is little reason to doubt that training budgets have also taken a hit.

The clerks in Arapahoe County probably had an in session training class about handling restraining orders that the Douglas County clerk's office had not. The Douglas County court clerk was enforcing a policy that applies, reasonably, to non-restraining order cases in the county. And, not every court system in Colorado interprets the state mandate to handle restraining order cases promptly in the same way. Empathy is not high on the job qualification list of court clerks who are the gate keepers of our system of justice.

But, whatever the reason, the bottom line is that Douglas County still doesn't get it, when it comes to the paramount importance that should be given to restraining orders, at least in the clerk's office.

The TV news didn't report anyone being murdered in Castle Rock over the weekend, so maybe she managed to escape the threat she perceived until Monday. I will never know. In a big, largely urbanized state, like Colorado, police blotter cases like that often don't make it into the papers at all. And, as the Castle Rock v. Gonzales case that went to that U.S. Supreme Court shows, having a restraining order is no guarantee that the police won't blow it off with impunity in Castle Rock, so maybe it wouldn't have made a difference.

But, ultimately, there is no legal excuse for the court system to fail to give restraining orders the priority that state law affords them.

Cross Posted at Colorado Confidential.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Oh-Willeke,
Your bio states you are an attorney. If you were so mortified, upset with the lack of cooperation this woman was getting from the clerk and truly concerned with her safety and welfare, why didn't you, as an attorney, offer to assist her?

It's easy to complain. Actions speak so much louder than words.