Column: Political claims rarely match reality | Opinion

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Political candidates make all kinds of statements. The reality, however, is much more nuanced and could never fit neatly into a Facebook campaign meme or direct mail.

The race for Moore County Superior Court clerk, which will be all but settled after Tuesday’s primary election, is one such instance where an orchestrated outrage campaign seeks to sway voters.

The Clerk of the past 12 years, Susan Hicks, is retiring at the end of the year. That set up a Republican primary between his longtime deputy, Chris Morgan, and Todd Maness, a former Pinehurst police officer who now works as a community coordinator at the sheriff’s office. No Democrats have filed for the seat, so unless challenged by a written candidate, Tuesday’s winner is likely to be the new clerk.

Morgan’s campaign is based on his experience of more than 20 years working in the office. Maness, whose previous law enforcement experience gave him insight into the clerk’s office, is campaigning more aggressively, and some of his recent posts don’t tell the whole story.

One of Maness’ criticisms is directed at how the clerk’s office handles the process of a person applying for, completing, and obtaining a domestic violence protection order, or what is known in the system as a “50 -B” for the place it occupies in the statutes of the State.

Specifically, Maness, in a meme posted on his Facebook campaign page, criticizes the Clerk’s Office for its 3 p.m. cut-off time for accepting 50-B documents, even though the office is open weekdays until 5 p.m. .

“If you’ve ever tried to get a protective order from the clerk’s office after 3 p.m. and were told to come back tomorrow, you were probably flabbergasted at how you were treated,” reads the same. “This is how the current Registrar’s Office operates and treats people under duress for a matter that requires the utmost urgency.”

He continued, “We need to elect Todd Maness Moore County Clerk. He understands the importance and urgency of a protective order and will approach the matter with the utmost care and respect for anyone at any time the clerk’s office is open.

In other posts on his campaign page, Maness says he has audio recordings of a turned away woman.

“Soooooo – if you come at 3:01 p.m. during the week to do business with the clerk’s office, you will be told that you have to come back tomorrow. Even if you ask for, for example, a domestic violence protection order,” says the message.

The accusation of foot-dragging is serious, but even more so when it comes to domestic violence protection orders. It would be outrageous if victims seeking assistance from the court were turned away or deprived of protection in a timely manner.

Rest quietly. They are not.

The court office stops accepting papers at 3 p.m. But there is a reason. The larger truth is complex and would never fit neatly into a campaign slogan or social media post.

The process for a 50-B involves the clerk’s office, a district court judge, the sheriff’s office, and often Friend to Friend, the domestic violence advocacy nonprofit across the street from the courthouse.

To learn more about the process, I spoke with participants representing all of these groups.

Requests for emergency protection orders are not uncommon. According to the Courts Administration Office, Moore County processed 234 domestic violence orders between July 2020 and July 2021, the most recent available. Some people come to collect papers but never return them. Others file claim after claim, sometimes with merit, sometimes not.

When a person applies for a 50-B protection order, they are given a 33-page packet to fill out. It must be completed in full and the court is prohibited by law from helping to complete it or giving advice. In capital letters on a green cover sheet, it says: “The Clerk’s Office cannot (underlined) assist you in completing these forms.

Just below it says that free assistance is offered across the street at Friend to Friend, the non-profit advocacy group that helps victims of domestic violence and runs a shelter for women and families seeking protection.

The second page is the address, phone number, crisis line and its friend-to-friend hours of operation. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. “Protection order assistance is available from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.,” it says.

Thus, Friend to Friend and the Registrar’s Office have a cut-off time of 3:00 p.m. to accept documents. Why?

The answer is complex, but it boils down to this: it takes a long time to complete a case, and once a case is filed, a countdown begins for other actors to respond and complete their tasks.

Filling out the forms is often a challenge for a layman. Language barriers could play a role. When it comes to filling in details, the victims may get emotional and confused about the details. The forms require specific dates and acts of injury.

The forms seek information on children in the home, weapons in the home, ownership of common property such as housing and vehicles. The victim should specify what they want from the court, such as no contact at home or in the office, or if they want the alleged abuser to move.

Once a full packet is delivered, several things happen in a short time. A clerk immediately calls an assistant for the district court judges. This assistant approaches and takes the documents, or the clerk will hand deliver them.

The person seeking protection will go before or speak with a judge in what is called an “ex parte” hearing. This is a rare single-party hearing that the judge will hold to assess the claim.

Regardless of the outcome, the clerk immediately schedules a hearing no later than 10 days before, during which both parties will argue their case on a more permanent order of protection.

The clerk directs the person seeking the order to wait in a secure, windowless conference room. It’s unclear how long it may take for a judge to review the documents. Usually, this hearing takes place within an hour, but depending on staffing, it may take longer. State law requires an ex parte hearing by the end of the next business day or within 72 hours of filing.

Judges are not immediately available. They may hear cases, be out of town for training, or be sick. Either way, the court worker usually presents the request to a judge within 30 Moore County minutes. Judges have been known to take breaks from other cases to step back and process a claim.

Once the judge has made a decision one way or the other, another clock starts ticking. The clerk’s office should stamp and process the decision, then make copies. A granted order requires 21 copies in total spread over seven forms; a refused order is 16 copies spread over seven forms.

Copies then go to Friend to Friend, the Sheriff’s Office and the Judge. The sheriff’s deputy must obtain the order in order to serve it on the alleged abuser.

All of this assumes everyone is in their office and readily available. It also assumes that the documents are filled out correctly, as any mistake can lead to the rejection of the application. Things rarely go well, but all parties say they are moving as fast as they can.

Would the process go faster if a magistrate could approve a temporary protection order? Some counties allow it. Judges, however, are generally conservative and say the complexity of these cases – not the least of which is the rare “ex parte” hearing – makes them cautious about entrusting this responsibility to magistrates who are not as educated in law as they are. are.

Issuing a protection order in an ex parte setting can often have an impact on a person’s employment or living conditions. This could involve taking up arms and preventing someone from seeing their child. It is a serious act of justice that requires a demanding know-how.

Maness says it should be the clerk’s duty to work after hours if necessary to get protection orders processed. “I will never refuse a victim of abuse, no matter when,” he said in a campaign letter.

The goal is laudable, but getting overtime pay from the state office that administers the courts is nearly impossible. While court clerks could work overtime, the court system still shuts down computer systems at 7 p.m. to process the day’s thousands of legal documents. Accepting a form at 4:30 p.m. will most likely not be acted on until the next day.

And the power to grant magistrates the ability to hear temporary protective orders rests with the judges, not the clerk.

It’s not a cavalier thing to have someone’s rights taken away, and that’s what happens when someone seeks a domestic violence protection order.

It is essential to provide this protection, but the justice system must be careful not to take sides. The action must be done with sobriety, with a lot of thought and sensitivity.

By most accounts – from court clerks to lawyers to judges – that is what is happening now. It’s just that nobody put it in a campaign meme or direct mail.

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