KEYNOTE REMARKS

Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, Jr.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

to the

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SUMMIT

Durham, NC April 24, 1996


GOOD EVENING. I AM HONORED TO BE HERE THIS EVENING TO ADDRESS THE JUDICIARY’S ROLE IN THE VERY SERIOUS MATTER OFDOMESTIC VIOLENCE. SINCE BECOMING CHIEF JUSTICE FIFTEEN MONTHS AGO I HAVE FOCUSED ON THE RESTORATION OF OUR PUBLIC’SFAITH IN OUR COURTS.

AS I HAVE TRAVELED AROUND NORTH CAROLINA I HAVE BEEN OVERWHELMED BY THE TIDAL WAVE OF NEGATIVE COMMENTS ABOUT OUR INSTITUTIONS OF GOVERNMENT IN GENERAL AND OUR COURTS IN PARTICULAR. BECAUSE OF THE COMMENTS, I HAVE INITIATED A SERIOUS EFFORT TO RELAY THE PROGRESS WE MAKE IN OUR COURTS TO THE PUBLIC. MY DUTY AS CHIEF JUSTICE IS TO RESTORE THE PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IN OUR COURTS AND TO SEE TO IT THAT THE PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IS JUSTIFIED BY EFFICIENT COURTS AND COURTS THAT WORK BETTER FOR WITNESSES AND VICTIMS.

AS YOU HAVE ENGAGED IN DISCUSSION TODAY YOU HAVE BECOME AWARE OF JUST HOW PREVALENT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS IN OUR SOCIETY. EVERYDAY WE HEAR OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN STALKED, INJURED, MURDERED BY A PAST OR PRESENT FAMILY MEMBER. WE ALL KNOW TOO WELL THAT THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESULTS FROM MORE THAN EMOTION. IT RESULTS FROM STRONG ISSUES OF ECONOMIC POWER AND CONTROL WITHIN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS. OUR COURTS HEAR THESE CASES, AND ALL TOO OFTEN IT IS TOO LATE FOR THE VICTIM.

IN PREPARING FOR THIS SUMMIT, I THOUGHT BACK TO TEN YEARS AGO WHEN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE WAS NOT VIEWED AS A SERIOUS ISSUE. EVEN IN SEVERE CASES WHERE DEATH OR PERMANENT INJURY RESULTED RARELY WAS DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SEEN AS A VIOLENT CRIME. MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, WE ALL TENDED TO TURN OUR HEADS AND REMARK THAT THIS WAS AN ISSUE BEST MEDIATED IN PRIVATE. WE SAW DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AS A FAMILY MATTER AND AN ISSUE BEST ADDRESSED OUTSIDE PUBLIC VIEW. THE CRIMINAL COURTS WERE NOT BELIEVED TO BE THE VENUE BY WHICH THESE DISPUTES SHOULD BE RESOLVED.

ONE RESULT OF THE LACK OF RESPONSE TO THIS ISSUE AS A CRIMINAL ACT HAS BEEN THE REINFORCEMENT OF THE BEHAVIOR WHICH LEADS TO VIOLENCE. OUR SUBTLE REINFORCEMENT HAS LEAD TO MORE VIOLENT BEHAVIOR AND THE ESCALATING INCIDENCE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. TO DISCUSS THE LACK OF RESPONSE IS TO RAISE THE THEME FOR YOUR SUMMIT, "RAZING AN OLD RULE OF THUMB."

"RAZING AN OLD RULE OF THUMB" IS A CONCEPT ROOTED IN THE BELIEF IN THE EARLY LAW WHICH STATED THAT MAN HAD AN ABSOLUTE RIGHT AND AUTHORITY TO DISCIPLINE HIS WIFE AND CHILDREN. LOOKING BACK TO ENGLISH COMMON LAW, THIS NOTION WAS ENFORCED BUT LIMITED TO A MAN’S USE OF FORCE TO "A ROD NO THICKER THAN HIS THUMB." THIS ESTABLISHED THE RULE OF THUMB, OBVIOUSLY NOT OUR JUDICIAL STANDARD TODAY. BUT STILL A PREVALENT SOCIETAL VALUE WHICH CUTS ACROSS EVERY SOCIO-ECONOMIC, AND ETHNIC GROUP. A VALUE WHICH TEARS APART FAMILIES AND DESTROYS COMMUNITIES. TODAY WE HAVE A CHANCE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. WE CAN WORK AS TEAMS AND TAKE ACTION TO CHANGE THE MINDSET WHICH DRIVES THIS VIOLENCE.

EVERY DAY, HUNDREDS OF VICTIMS COME BEFORE OUR COURTS IN AN ATTEMPT TO DEAL WITH THE VIOLENCE. AS EFFORTS HAVE ENSUED TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC ABOUT BOTH THE CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, WE NOW UNDERSTAND THAT THERE IS A BROAD RANGE OF BEHAVIORS, ADDICTIONS, AND ABUSES. DESPITE THE EFFORTS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE TO INCREASE PUBLIC AWARENESS AND CREATE COMMUNITY ACTION, MANY MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS ARE STILL PREVALENT. THE MYTHS CREATE DEVASTATING EFFECTS ON FAMILIES INVOLVED IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. CHILDREN WHO ACCEPT AND LEARN THE BEHAVIOR; CHILDREN WHO WATCH AND RECOIL FROM THE BEHAVIOR; AND, CHILDREN WHOSE LIVES ARE SHAPED BY VIOLENCE AND ABUSE. WE MUST MAKE PERPETRATORS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS IN ORDER TO BREAK THE CYCLE PASSED ON TO OUR CHILDREN.

THE LETHALITY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HAS PROMPTED EFFORTS NATIONWIDE. VICTIMS TURN TO THE COURTS AS A MEANS OF PROTECTION AND AS A MEANS OF INTERVENTION IN A CYCLE OF ABUSE AND VIOLENCE WITHIN THE HOME. AS OUR SOCIETY HAS BECOME MORE EDUCATED ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ESPECIALLY THE LONG TERM EFFECTS, COURTS HAVE SEEN A DRAMATIC INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF CRIMINAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES. JUDGES PRESCRIBE THE SENTENCES ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE, AND TOGETHER THEY SEND STRONG MESSAGES TO BOTH DEFENDANT AND VICTIM. BUT THE MANNER WITH WHICH JUDGES AND OTHER COURT OFFICIALS HANDLE THESE MATTERS IS AS IMPORTANT AS THE SENTENCE. AND IS AS IMPORTANT TO THE VICTIM AS TO THE DEFENDANT.

WHAT CAN OUR JUDICIARY DO TO DETER AND BREAK THE CYCLE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE? WHAT CAN WE DO TO ELIMINATE THE "RULE OF THUMB?" TODAY, WE OFFER EDUCATION FOR OUR JUDGES FOR JUVENILE CASES. JUVENILE CERTIFICATION PROVIDES OUR JUDGES WITH EXPERTISE IN THE EMOTIONAL, PHYSICAL, AND MENTAL BEHAVIOR OF CHILDREN AND ENABLES THEM TO MAKE MORE INFORMED, SENSITIVE, AND JUST DECISIONS. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS A FAMILY OR EXTENDED FAMILY MATTER AND MAY BEST BE DEALT WITH IN A SIMILAR MANNER. EDUCATIONAL TRAINING ENABLES JUDGES TO OBSERVE AND RESPOND TO EVIDENCE WITH A FULL UNDERSTANDING OF THE ARRAY OF ISSUES PRESENT IN THE CASES. TRAINING IN FAMILY LAW MATTERS WILL ALSO ENABLE JUDGES AND COURT OFFICIALS TO BE A PART OF THE LONG TERM HEALING NEEDED TO BREAK THE CYCLE, ELIMINATE STEREOTYPING, AND UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES INVOLVED WITH BEHAVIORS WHICH WHEN LEFT UNTREATED INTENSIFY.

WE SIMPLY MUST RECOGNIZE THAT WE CANNOT DO BUSINESS AS USUAL IN OUR COURTS. WE MUST BE SENSITIVE TO THE NEEDS OF THE PARTIES AND WITNESSES, AND REDEDICATE OURSELVES TO THE PROPOSITION THAT COURTS EXIST TO SERVE PEOPLE.

WE MUST ALSO IMPROVE THE SPEED AND EFFICIENCY OF OUR CRIMINAL COURTS TO THE EXTENT WE CAN DO SO WITHOUT SACRIFICING JUSTICE. IT IS TIME FOR US TO REVIEW AND MODIFY OUR RULES OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE SET OUT IN CHAPTER 15A, AND I AM HAPPY TO SAY WE ARE MAKING PLANS NOW TO REVIEW AND REVAMP THE PROCEDURES.

WITHIN THE COURTS, WE MUST ENACT INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO SOCIETY’S PROBLEMS. THERE IS A DIRECT RELATIONSHIP IN MANY SITUATIONS BETWEEN SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. IN MOST CASES WE HEAR THERE IS A SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROBLEM - DRUGS OR ALCOHOL - WITH THE DEFENDANT. AND SADLY, MANY VICTIMS TURN TO SUBSTANCE ABUSE AS A MECHANISM FOR COPING WITH THE VIOLENCE AND PAIN. WE CURRENTLY HAVE PILOT PROJECTS IN THREE DISTRICTS FOR SPECIAL DRUG TREATMENT COURTS. MECKLENBURG, FORSYTH, AND WAKE COUNTIES HAVE RECENTLY RECEIVED GRANT FUNDS TO IMPLEMENT SPECIAL COURTS TO HEAR SUBSTANCE ABUSE - RELATED CRIMES. WARREN AND PERSON COUNTIES HAVE RECEIVED GRANT FUNDS TO PLAN FOR PILOT DRUG TREATMENT COURTS.

MECKLENBURG HAS CHAMPIONED A COURT OVER THE PAST YEAR. UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF JUDGE PHIL HOWERTON, THEY HELD THEIR FIRST "GRADUATION" FOR PARTICIPANTS A MONTH AGO. MECKLENBURG’S COURT IS THE MODEL FOR A SPECIAL COURT WHERE SUBSTANCE ABUSE TREATMENT IS AN INCENTIVE AND REQUIREMENT FOR DISMISSAL OF CRIMINAL CHARGES. COURTS OF THIS TYPE HAVE PROVEN VERY SUCCESSFUL IN ADDRESSING SUBSTANCE ABUSE ISSUES IN RURAL AND URBAN AREAS ACROSS THE COUNTRY. TO THE DEGREE THERE IS A CONNECTION BETWEEN SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, THESE COURTS WILL HAVE A POSITIVE EFFECT ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.

WE MUST ALSO LOOK LONG AND HARD AT THE POSSIBILITY OF DESIGNING FAMILY COURTS. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES ARE UNIQUE IN THAT THE VICTIM OFTEN HAS ONE FOOT IN CIVIL COURT AND ONE FOOT IN CRIMINAL COURT. A FAMILY COURT COMBINING ALL OF THE ELEMENTS OF DOMESTIC CASELOAD COULD STREAMLINE THE PROCESS AND MAKE IT EASIER FOR OUR VICTIMS.

FINALLY, OUR COURTS HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO SOCIETY TO PROVIDE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT. WE MUST HOLD PERPETRATORS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS. WE MUST PROTECT VICTIMS. YOU ARE PART OF THIS PROCESS. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER AND WE MUST ACT NOW TO STRIKE DOWN THE RULE OF THUMB AND ESTABLISH NEW STANDARDS OF BEHAVIOR TO BE ADHERED TO BY SOCIETY.