Durham County's District Court Judges (2011)
(Left to Right: Judge James T. Hill, Judge Nancy Gordon,
Judge Williuam A. Marsh, III, Judge Doretta Walker,
Chief Judge Marcia Morey, Judge Pat Evans, Judge Brian Wilks)
The State of North Carolina has two trial court divisions: Superior and District Courts. The District Court is divided into 39 district court districts. These Trial Courts, or District Courts, can be divided into different categories: civil, criminal, family, juvenile, magistrate and specialty courts.
The criminal jurisdiction of the District Court Division includes preliminary "probable cause" hearings in felony cases, and virtually all misdemeanor and infraction cases. The District Court also has jurisdiction to accept guilty pleas in certain felony cases. Trials in criminal and infraction cases are by District Court Judges only; no trial by jury is available for such cases. Appeals are to the Superior Court for trial de novo before a jury.
In addition, the District Courts share concurrent jurisdiction with the Superior Courts in general civil cases. However, the District Court is the "proper" division for general civil cases where the amount in controversy is $15,000 or less. Civil cases in District Court may be tried before a jury; appeals are to the Court of Appeals
All civil cases involving claims for money damages of $5,000 or less are subject to court-ordered, non-binding “court annexed” arbitration. Certain property disputes, family law matters, estates, special proceedings, and class actions are excluded from court-ordered arbitration. If a case is not resolved at arbitration, it may be appealed and heard before a judge or jury.
Any issue relating to a family is assigned to Family Court in the eight judicial districts that have these special courts. This includes all juvenile delinquency charges; neglect and abuse charges; termination of parental rights and adoptions; child custody and visitation rights; divorce and related financial issues like child support, alimony, or equitable distribution of property.
Durham County is a Family Court Jurisdiction. When a case relating to a family is filed, the case is randomly assigned to one of our designated family court judges. One of our two assigned Family Court judges hear all cases involving child custody and visitation rights; divorce and related financial issues like child support, alimony, or equitable distribution of property; related domestic violence cases and adoptions. Two other judges preside in our Abuse/Neglect & Dependency Court. And Delinquency cases are heard by two other assigned judges (see Juvenile, below). All Family Court judges and staff initially receive specialized training in a variety of court, child, and family issues. These extensive training sessions include case management, child development and family dynamics, domestic violence, and community collaboration. Case adjudication and resolution is the principle business of our courts. Family Court is a very effective way of resolving family disputes of all kinds using intensive case management and a "one judge/one family" system of case assignment. The goal and mission is to provide a fair, affordable and prompt resolution to families in distress. Presently, the median age of a family court case in Durham County is less than 50 days. The statewide median for Family Court is 190 days and in a non-Family Court district, the pending median age is 280 days. http://www.nccourts.org/Citizens/SRPlanning/Documents/non-IVDcvd_082710.pdf
The court's jurisdiction also extends to all juvenile proceedings and mental health hospital commitments. Juvenile proceedings concern children who are delinquent, undisciplined, abused, neglected, or dependent. These proceedings are initiated by petition, and the hearing conducted by the judge may be less formal than in adult cases. Juveniles alleged to be delinquent are entitled to have the court appoint counsel for them.
Until June 30, 2011, Durham County had three Drug Treatment Courts (“DTC”): Family Treatment Court, Youth Treatment Court and Adult Treatment Court. Like DWI Courts and Veteran's Courtst, these courts are a part of the national discussion and innovation of therapeutic or problem-solving courts. The North Carolina Drug Treatment Courts (DTC) were established by statute in 1995 with the goal of enhancing and monitoring the delivery of treatment services to chemically dependent adult offenders while holding the participants rigorously accountable for complying with their court-ordered treatment plans. The overall goal of the DTC is to significantly break the cycle of addiction that gives rise to repeated law-breaking episodes. By enhancing the likelihood that the drug-driven offender will remain drug and crime free and socially responsible, the DTC seeks to reduce justice system, health system, and other societal costs associated with continuing drug use and criminal involvement.
In the 2011 budget cycle the NC Legislature eliminated all state funds for drug courts. In Durham, we were fortunate that the Criminal Justice Resource Center stepped up to partner with the courts to keep Adult Treatment Court funded. Unfortunately Family Drug Treatment Court (FDTC) was a casualty of state budget cuts. This court was a creative response to the need for greater accountability of parents of abused and/or neglected children to work to change their addictive behaviors so that they could regain custody of their children and productively parent them. Family Drug Courts were a working part of the national discussion about including "problem solving" courts where services and case management are integrated and work as a sanction and incentive system designed to motivate and change illegal and destructive behaviors. These are evidence based therapeutic courts and the need for specialty courts is greater, not less. With resources, we would like to implement a Mental Health Court, bring back our Drug Treatment Courts, put a Veteran's Court in place and explore undertaking a DWI Court. There is growing evidence that the best way to serve these in-need populations, to make our community safer, to curtail the involvement of these individuals in criminal behaviors and to change the behaviors that undercut the ability of these individuals to contribute positively to our community, is to implement and support problem-solving courts. The loss of Family Drug Court is a significant loss to the Durham Community.