Usually, Judge Lisa Bell sits behind the bench. But in December, in a move that has drawn criticism, she took the witness stand to help a colleague.
As Mecklenburg's chief district judge, Bell testified on behalf of Charlotte psychologist H.D. Kirkpatrick, who was facing possible discipline. He had failed to provide face-to-face supervision of another mental health professional, and was appearing before the N.C. Psychology Board to explain.
In the end, the psychology board decided not to sanction him.
But Bell's appearance and testimony have fueled critics who complain that such clubby relationships in Mecklenburg's courts compromise justice.
Her testimony also prompted an ethics complaint against Bell, alleging that she had used the prestige of her office to promote Kirkpatrick's business interests.
The complaint was dismissed. But its allegations live on, now posted on an Internet blog titled "Judge Bell Exposed."
Kirkpatrick, who testifies in child custody cases, feared some lawyers would use any sanction against him to question his integrity.
So he subpoenaed Bell, who testified that even a minor sanction would damage Kirkpatrick in a major way.
Both described the hostility he faces from some Charlotte psychologists and litigants.
He has received threats, he told the psychology board, and in 2007 found a voodoo doll on his wife's car - with pins in its heart.
"I sort of walk around with a target on me," he said.
The acrimony dates back a decade to a feud among psychologists. Some complained that judges were favoring forensic psychologists, including Kirkpatrick and a few others, by too often choosing them to evaluate parents in child custody disputes, freezing other psychologists out of what can be lucrative court work.
Some critics also are suspicious because Kirkpatrick is married to Katie Holliday, a family law attorney with the James, McElroy & Diehl firm. Critics have accused the firm of having undue influence on judges. Holliday declined comment, but Bill Diehl says such allegations are nonsense.
Kirkpatrick does work with the Diehl firm on custody cases but says he actually works more often with firms that oppose Diehl and his colleagues.
Sets a standard
When Bell took the stand for Kirkpatrick, she praised him, saying he set a standard all psychologists who work with the courts should aspire to.
"We have our share of hired guns in Mecklenburg County," she testified. "And as a judicial officer interested in facts and the truth, I can say that he was never, ever considered one of those."
Bell also elaborated on allegations she'd heard aimed at both her and Kirkpatrick.
Asked what critics say about him, Bell said: "That he accepts bribes; that his wife's firm accepts bribes; that the court accepts bribes in order to rule favorably for certain litigants who are represented by Dr. Kirkpatrick's wife's firm; that he engages in criminal conduct ... that I assigned judges to family court specifically for the purpose of lining the pockets of Dr. Kirkpatrick and his wife, and that I should be in prison for those actions."
Three months after the hearing, an Albemarle woman filed the ethics complaint against Bell. It alleged, among other things, that Bell's appearance and kind words show "Dr. Kirkpatrick is in a special position to influence Judge Bell."
It also alleged that Bell had "a long and detailed relationship" with Kirkpatrick and his wife, as well as the Diehl firm.
In dismissing the complaint, the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission found that Bell hadn't testified as a character witness and didn't violate the judicial code of conduct. Judges can testify in court, though such appearances are infrequent.
The complaint against Bell was curious. It was filed by a woman named Rhonda Sisk, an Albemarle resident with no obvious connection to Bell or the Mecklenburg courts. Sisk didn't respond to the Observer's request to discuss her complaint.
Sisk grew up in Bluefield, W.Va., with psychologist Lisa Pennington and her sister Rhonda Patt, a pediatrician. The two court system critics say they are acquainted with Sisk, who is Pennington's Facebook friend. But the sisters say they had nothing to do with the complaint Sisk filed.
Bell called "ludicrous" the allegations that she has a special relationship with Kirkpatrick and the lawyers at James, McElroy & Diehl. She said she decides cases based on the law - not on who the litigants and their attorneys are.
She doesn't think her testimony at Kirkpatrick's hearing compromises her objectivity. She hasn't presided in family court since 2003. Even so, Bell says that if Kirkpatrick is ever a witness in her courtroom, she'll disclose that she once testified on his behalf.
"If they think I can't be fair," she said, "I would recuse myself."