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Trials that will not adjourn

Judges dispute claims of bias in Mecklenburg's family court

By Pam Kelley and Gary L. Wright
pkelley@charlotteobserver.com, gwright@charlotteobserver.com

Last year, Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Lisa Bell had a surveillance camera installed outside her house. Her colleague, Judge Becky Tin, purchased the first gun she's ever owned.

Both took those precautions on advice from law enforcement amid a climate of increasingly vocal domestic court critics who accuse the two judges of ethical breaches and bias.

The criticism has taken many forms - from formal complaints to protests, Internet blogs and mysterious letters that left the judges feeling threatened. Though an ethics board dismissed the complaints against the two judges, critics recently have hired private investigators to look for bias. They've also tried to recruit candidates to run against the judges this year, in one case promising financial backing.

Inside Mecklenburg's courthouse, more family court litigants than ever are asking judges to recuse themselves, alleging bias, conflicts or corruption. A few litigants have also disrupted court and tried to circumvent security, one by repeatedly entering the courthouse with a prohibited recording device and the other by assaulting a sheriff's office employee.

"It has been ruthless and relentless," says Judge Bell. "It has been frightening. In 12 years on the bench, I've never seen this."

Anger over domestic rulings lies at the heart of these challenges. While most divorce and custody cases settle without a trial, those that do go into court are almost always bitter. Accusations may involve adultery, child abuse, bad parenting. The legal battles can lead to financial ruin. And some losing litigants come to attribute their defeat to judges' biases in favor of certain lawyers.

Judge Tin has been singled out because of rulings she's made while presiding in a special court for the most complex divorce and child custody disputes. Judge Bell is under attack partly because of her contentious relationship with former District Judge Bill Belk, who in April was banned from the bench for misconduct.

He's among those who have challenged the judges. So are members of the N.C. Court Watch Foundation.

Critics also include litigants who have lost in court and are airing their grievances in the community. Among them are people with professional credentials, connections and money.

Lisa Pennington, a Charlotte child psychologist, has become one of the most vocal critics after losing custody of her two sons in Tin's courtroom. She says her efforts are a necessary recourse in a legal system where judges let favoritism color their rulings.

If judges would rule in the best interests of children, she says, they wouldn't have to worry about retaliation and their reputations.

But judges Tin and Bell, as well as others in the legal system, see the escalating condemnations as a damaging smear campaign that undermines public trust.

The campaigns, they say, distort the truth, distract officials from their jobs and waste taxpayer money as judges are forced to respond to disruptions and accusations.

The acrimony also illustrates the pitfalls inherent in North Carolina's system of electing judges, some say. To win election, judges need campaign money and votes, making them vulnerable to public opinion. And when lawyers support their campaigns, it fuels perceptions that judges are beholden to their backers.

"We're going to be dealing with this nonsense forever if we keep allowing judges to be elected and be susceptible to this," says Gena Morris, a Charlotte lawyer who specializes in family law. "Angry litigants shouldn't be running the show."

Suspicions of bias

Anger often simmers around domestic court rulings. But when Bill Belk stepped onto the public stage two years ago, he gave new voice to litigants who, like him, felt wronged by the courts.

The millionaire grandson of the Belk department stores founder, Belk ran for judge in 2008 on promises of court reform and managed to beat Judge Ben Thalheimer.

During his campaign, Belk cited his multi-year divorce case as proof of the courts' flaws. One judge awarded custody of his children to his ex-wife. Another judge threatened to jail him over a dispute with his ex-wife about football tickets. Thalheimer, a third judge in his case, gave his ex-wife more than half of their $4.9 million marital assets.

Last summer, while serving as a judge, Belk aired his complaints on the nationally syndicated "John Boy and Billy Big Show," a radio program broadcast in 21 states.

Assailing what he called "the legal-industrial complex," Belk advocated for "knocking the court system out of divorce." Divorces that end up in court, he said, lead lawyers to use "children as weapons ... to make money."

Belk also raised questions at a political meeting about the influence he claimed local lawyers, including Bill Diehl, had on the courts.

Diehl, senior trial attorney for James, McElroy & Diehl, had represented Belk's ex-wife for part of their divorce. The firm is known for taking on high-profile cases and has long been singled out by critics who complain about its aggressive litigation style.

Belk's critique wasn't the first time litigants had raised suspicions about cozy relationships and bias in Mecklenburg's family courts.

In 2000, a woman objected when she learned the judge in her custody case shared ownership of a vacation home with a few other lawyers - including the one representing her ex-husband. That attorney, Katie Holliday, works at the Diehl firm. An appeals court found the judge, Bill Jones, had not violated ethics rules.

But the mountain house incident continues to fuel litigants who think family court is rigged against them.

Over the years, critics also singled out Holliday's husband, Charlotte psychologist H.D. Kirkpatrick, claiming judges were showing favoritism by choosing him too frequently to evaluate parents in custody disputes.

For the last decade, Kirkpatrick says, he's been accused of corruption and perjury. He thinks his work as an expert who sometimes criticizes the opinions of other psychologists has helped make him a target. He also says critics are suspicious of him because his wife works for Diehl and because he, too, does some work for Diehl's firm.

Critics say such connections among judges, lawyers and experts can produce biased rulings, or at least an appearance of bias.

Judges "have control of our money and our children. Why wouldn't you look at their alliances?" says one litigant in an ongoing custody fight.

In 2008, Belk's campaign for judge brought suspicions of untoward courthouse connections back to public light.

While many disagreed with Belk's tactics, some lawyers and litigants saw bits of truth in his allegations. They complain that some lawyers aggravate domestic disputes by dragging things out, jacking up costs and bringing in "hired guns" to offer whatever testimony they need.

Belk resigned last year and was banned from the bench in April after the N.C. Supreme Court ruled he'd violated the judicial code by serving on a paid board of directors while he was a judge.

During the controversy, Judge Bell became one of the people Belk blamed for his troubles. An ethics investigation found that Belk had called her a "political hack," and had claimed that her appointment as chief had been "bought and paid for" so she could "screw him over."

When Belk came under fire, members of a Charlotte-based group called the N.C. Court Watch Foundation stepped up to support him.

They rallied last fall when Belk went to Raleigh for his disciplinary hearing before the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission. Supporters carried signs defending Belk.

"JUDGE BELK Can't Be BOUGHT," one sign proclaimed.

"KANGAROO COURT...Save Our Families!" said another.

Standing among the supporters was litigant Lisa Pennington, also holding a sign: "Judge Tin Destroys Lives."

Litigants fight back

Pennington lost custody of her sons in Tin's courtroom in a special court called the complex domestic litigation track. Created in 2007, the court was designed for long or complicated divorce and child custody cases.

Mecklenburg's regular district court isn't set up to handle lengthy trials, and legal experts say such special-purpose courts are common.

As the only judge assigned to the special court, Tin was bound to draw detractors, some lawyers say, because she presided over some of Mecklenburg's highest-conflict cases.

One of those cases was Pennington's. After losing her custody fight, she and her sister, Dr. Rhonda Patt, have rallied other litigants, filed ethics complaints and blasted Tin on the Internet. They searched Tin's rulings for errors and bias. They looked at cases where one side had an attorney from the Diehl firm, which represents Pennington's ex-husband.

Patt wrote in an ethics complaint that she found seven rulings by Tin in cases involving James, McElroy & Diehl. The firm prevailed in six of those cases, Patt said.

"I discovered that there is NO CONSISTENCY to her rulings other than the fact that she will do anything to rule on the side of JMD," Patt wrote. Tin "is incapable of ruling without emotion and bias in cases that involve the James, McElroy and Diehl firm."

The N.C. Judicial Standards Commission dismissed the sisters' complaints, finding no "improper motive or bias."

In an interview, Patt admits she has no hard evidence to support her allegations of favoritism. "I'm just saying there are patterns in the orders."

But some critics say Tin's alliance with Diehl is obvious: They cite a 2008 letter Diehl wrote urging the state's chief justice to appoint Tin as Mecklenburg chief district judge. She didn't get the job. Bell did. Such endorsements from lawyers aren't unusual, and Tin says she discloses the letter whenever Diehl is in her courtroom.

Also scrutinizing Tin's connections is Barry McCrory, a Charlotte business consultant who has formed the National Foundation for Judicial Reform. His one-man organization is funded, he says, by local lawyers and others who want to remain anonymous.

Litigants who lost in Tin's court have been angered when she refused to give them joint custody, even though experts nationally say that's generally best for children.

But experts also point out that joint custody often doesn't work in high-conflict cases, when parents can't get along. "And if cases are litigated at all, that's high conflict," says Suzanne Reynolds, a family law professor at Wake Forest University.

Some losing litigants and lawyers also complain that Tin makes up her mind too quickly. In several cases, she read detailed rulings soon after closing arguments.

No rules prohibit that, and some judges regularly rule from the bench. During trials, Tin says she and her interns take notes on computers so she can review testimony each night and rule promptly.

Tin calls the bias allegations untrue: "I care about what the facts are, the evidence I find. The faces of the attorneys are absolutely irrelevant to my rulings."

Lawyer Bill Diehl also dismisses accusations that his law firm has a cozy relationship with Tin. "I've never practiced law behind closed doors," he says. "My relationship with Becky Tin is no different than the relationships I've had with other judges. None of them have crossed the line."

His firm doesn't win because of connections, he says. "We win cases because we outlawyer the other lawyers."

In June, Judge Bell shut down the complex litigation court. Critics say that shows their concerns about the court were valid. But Bell says it was a practical decision: The number of complex cases has declined, while the backlog of regular domestic cases has grown.

Judges feel threatened

Both Tin and Bell, like many local judges, have won their seats with low-profile campaigns and usually faced no opponent.

Since they first sought judgeships, each has received more than 200 campaign contributions, most of them from lawyers. They've each raised about $50,000. Diehl firm lawyers gave Bell about $2,800 and Tin about $3,750.

Linked by allegations against them, the two judges are, in several ways, very different.

Bell, 43, is a Republican, first elected in 1998. She became chief district judge in 2008. Though she has drawn scorn from domestic court litigants, she hasn't presided in family court since 2003.

She did serve as chief judge, however, during Bill Belk's rocky tenure on the bench.

Bell also recently helped Kirkpatrick, the psychologist, by testifying on his behalf at a disciplinary hearing. Some critics point to her appearance and praise for Kirkpatrick as evidence of her bias toward him. Bell says that's ludicrous.

Many attorneys speak highly of Bell. "She's hardworking, quite competent, painfully ethical," says Tom Cannon, a veteran family law attorney. He hates seeing her tarred by bias allegations, he says. "That's, in my opinion, outrageous."

Tin, 50, is a Democrat, elected to the bench in 2002. A Harvard Law School graduate, she's often praised by attorneys for her intellect and ability to get to the truth.

"I've seen her really go out on a limb to try to help children and help families," says lawyer Tim Porterfield, who represents Pennington's sons as guardian ad litem. Tin, he says, will "do the right thing, regardless of any personal criticism or political consequences."

Says Charlotte lawyer Nelson Casstevens: "I've litigated with her with the Diehl firm on the other side. When I've got good facts, a good case, I win. When they've got better facts, a better case, they win."

Both Tin and Bell say some actions against them have frightened them.

Bell says the receipt of an anonymous letter in May 2009 is one incident that made her uneasy. The letter included details about her personal life that she says would have required someone to watch her house or hack into her e-mail.

Authorities investigated and installed a security camera at her house.

Then, in November, a few weeks after Belk's disciplinary hearing, Mecklenburg Sheriff Chipp Bailey encouraged both judges to get emergency permits to carry concealed weapons.

Bell worries the controversy will undermine the public's confidence in the courts. But mostly, she's weary of the hostility. To her critics, she says: "Quit making your factless allegations, throwing mud and hoping it's going to stick. Prove it."

Critics keep trying.

The latest maneuver: Someone has hired a Washington investigative firm called SNS Global to search for ties between the Diehl law firm and Judge Tin or her husband, Noell, a Charlotte lawyer.

Founded by two former Wall Street Journal reporters, SNS recently conducted research for a Middle Eastern prince, looking for ties between Iran and a United Arab Emirate.

SNS investigators won't say who they're working for in Charlotte, but they've been here this summer interviewing local lawyers.

Tin isn't worried. "These people may still be looking 10 years from now, but there is absolutely nothing inappropriate to be found."

Gary L. Wright: 704 358-5052; Pam Kelley 704 358-5271. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

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