A down-ballot primary race to fill a local judge’s seat generally is the last place to find election-year drama.
But Aretha Blake’s bid to return to the Mecklenburg County District Court has been roiled by attacks on her competence, claims of racism, and an increasingly bitter legal fight over media coverage that threatens to overshadow her showdown Tuesday with Charlotte attorney and fellow Democrat Lynna Moen.
This week, the clamor escalated when Blake filed a libel and slander suit against local TV reporter Nick Ochsner while also asking a judge to block his future stories about her. The station has said it stands by the story.
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Daniel Kuehner refused Blake’s request for a temporary restraining order against future stories about her by Ochsner and WBTV.
In arguing for the order, one of Blake’s attorneys intimated that Blake had been singled out for what he described as defamatory coverage because she is an African American incumbent facing a white opponent.
Blake faces allegations that she mismanaged dozens of cases during her time in Family Court. For two years, she was one of seven judges who heard hundreds of wrenching and drawn-out disputes over divorce, alimony and child custody, among other matters. In each case, a judge’s decision can impact a family for generations.
According to her critics, Blake often added to the emotional toll in the eighth-floor courtrooms by chronically failing to make rulings in a timely way.
Blake says the allegations are untrue, though she acknowledges that at first she was overwhelmed by her workload, which she says hit 1,000 cases in 2018 and forced her to work nights and weekends. Even so, she maintains that she successfully handled hundreds of cases on her docket while pointing out that she has the public support of at least nine of her District Court colleagues.
“There were cases I would have loved to have done faster because I knew how much the families needed it,” she told the Observer. “But I also know how hard we were working.”
An Observer review of dozens of Blake’s cases partially corroborated her assertion. Public records indicate that nearly one-third of all pending Family Court cases in 2019 were more than a year old — cases handled by all Family Court judges, not just Blake.
Yet critics have come forward, and two years ago a higher court specifically ordered Blake to make an overdue ruling in one of her cases.
‘Catastrophic’ to families
Lawyers rarely publicly rebuke the judges who hear their cases. “You don’t throw rocks at the alligators before you go swimming in the lake,” is how attorney Tom Bush put it.
The Observer contacted almost 20 judges and attorneys for this story. Most either did not respond or declined to comment.
But Bush says Blake too often dragged out decisions that froze families’ lives while driving up tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees.
The former Mecklenburg County commissioner says he had one divorce case in which Blake took more than 18 months to make a child-custody ruling. Legal veterans say a ruling in one to three months is closer to the norm.
Bush says the delay left the parents, now living in different states, unable to plan where their children would live or attend school.
“Judge Blake has some real skill and capability,” he said. “The problem is when you couldn’t get her verdicts, the results were catastrophic to the families.”
Veteran family law attorney Jonathan Feit of Charlotte said he supported Blake when she first ran for the bench four years ago after a 17-year legal practice career.
Now after practicing in Blake’s courtroom, Feit says the judge has not earned a second term. He cited one case where Blake did not show up for a hearing in which she had promised to deliver a ruling. On multiple occasions, Blake kept families in limbo by not responding to attorney inquiries about the status of her rulings, he said.
“If judges are presented with the evidence and arguments but fail to make decisions, people suffer, families suffer,” Feit told the Observer in an email. “In my experience, Judge Blake had a difficult time or failed to make some of these important decisions. The result was uncertainty, confusion and incredible frustration from the families involved.”
Regardless of the judge, Family Court cases, which regularly involve lengthy and separate court fights over property, money and child custody, tend to run long and can span multiple judges.
Statistics supplied by the Trial Court Administrator’s Office show that 33 to 41% of all pending Family Court cases in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 had been there for more than a year.
Yet Moen claims that only Blake had a significant backlog of cases. “The key to this race is to make sure we have someone in district court who has demonstrated the ability to manage the workload,” she said.
Backlog or slander?
Just how many families were kept waiting under Blake’s watch now drives an increasingly rancorous debate.
A Feb. 6 report from WBTV’s Ochsner claimed that as of this month, Blake had 52 cases dating back to 2017 in which she had not ruled.
Separately, in a Jan. 17 letter to the Black Political Caucus, Moen claimed Blake left 35 cases unresolved when she left Family Court in December 2018 to become a Juvenile Court judge.
Blake, the only incumbent judge on Tuesday’s ballot with an opponent, claims that both numbers are wildly inaccurate and that the attacks on her performance have been politically driven. She says her transfer to Juvenile Court two years ago filled a vacancy and was not caused by any performance issues on her part.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday against WBTV, Blake claims Ochsner had access to the case files that would have disproven the reported 52-case backlog but published his story anyway.
Blake claims that the allegation of the backlog is tied to the leak of an internal planning document created by her clerk during Blake’s early days on the bench to track ongoing cases — a list that she and her clerk told the Observer had become outdated.
Blake says the document actually lists 48 cases, not 52. After the WBTV story aired, Blake said she and other courthouse officials — including staff members from the offices of Clerk of Court Elisa Chinn Gary and Trial Court Administrator Charleston Carter — went back through the cases and found that Blake had ruled in 46 of them.
Blake says two cases inadvertently had been left open but she issued orders within days.
Blake says she asked the TV station to retract or correct its story. Then, she issued a public statement saying:
“We are only one week away from the start of early voting and the (WBTV) story was not intended to seek justice, inform or educate the people of Mecklenburg County ... Instead, the primary driver was a politically motivated attempt to distort and grossly miseducate the public about my integrity and the inner workings of the court.”
At a Feb. 20 press conference, members of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, including county Commissioner Vilma Leake, dismissed the WBTV report as false, lacking “journalistic integrity” and said it exemplifies bias and racism in the news media.
Blake and five other judges supporting her watched as Leake threatened a boycott of the TV station and The Observer “unless you print the truth.”
Finding the truth is not so simple.
When an Observer reporter asked to see the cases listed on the leaked list, a member of the clerk of court’s office pointed to dozens of files piled on a cart and dozens more stacked in a box beside it. Some cataloged family disputes that had stretched on for years before Blake became a judge.
A search found 16 cases from the list of those in which Blake supposedly had not ruled. In fact, Blake had made rulings of some sort in all of them. However, the timeliness of her decisions was unclear.
Ochsner has since told the Observer that, based on additional reporting, he now says that Blake’s backlog actually is 35 cases for the years 2017 and 2018 combined, not the 52 from 2017 he first reported.
WBTV News Director Kim Saxon said this week that she stands by her reporter and his work.
“Nick is careful, persistent, and responsible in his pursuit of the truth in his reporting,” Saxon said in a Wednesday e-mail.
‘Debacle’ in Family Court
Still, there is another paper trail to consider.
Blake was one of three Mecklenburg County Family Court judges — almost half the jurists assigned there — to be publicly sanctioned for late rulings in 2018.
Gary Henderson was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court in May 2018 for taking more than two years to hand down a child-custody order in one case.
Judge Ronald Chapman, now retired, was suspended for 30 days without pay in October 2018 for taking more than five years to rule on a motion for permanent child support.
Blake received a “Writ of Mandamus” order in July 2018 from the N.C. Court of Appeals, giving her 30 days to rule in a divorce case she had heard 14 months before.
The writs, which are basically “Do your job” edicts from a higher court, are infrequent. North Carolina has thousands of judges and elected officials. But in 2018, 140 writs were handed down, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. An AOC spokeswoman said the agency did not have the number of judges who received the orders.
Richard Boner of Charlotte, a former longtime District and Superior Court judge in Mecklenburg County, said such orders to judges are virtually unheard of.
“In almost 30 years, I never saw a judge get a Writ of Mandamus,” he said. “I suspect a lot of lawyers don’t even know what that is.”
Charlotte attorney Gena Morris first sought the order against Blake in February 2018 after the judge failed to respond to at least seven letters regarding the status of the case, according to court filings. The Court of Appeals denied the initial request but said Morris could refile it if Blake had not ruled in 60 days. Blake did not, and the appeals court handed down its order on July 6, 2018, pointedly noting that it had “repeatedly attempted to contact the Family Court coordinator assigned to (Blake) but did not receive a response.”
Morris declined to comment for this story. But in an email exchange with a former client whose case was heard by Blake, Morris called Blake “the worst judge I can remember dealing with, and I have dealt with dozens.”
The client provided the Observer with a copy of the email and other documents from her case on the condition of anonymity, saying her divorce case remains in Family Court.
Bush, the family law attorney, said Blake contributed to a general “debacle” in Family Court in which inexperienced judges are often assigned cases then moved to other parts of District Court after they have developed expertise.
Mecklenburg attorney Lee Myers, who has practiced law for more than 40 years, says Family Court is home to “the most difficult, the most stressful cases in the court system, and I’ve done them all.”
He says Blake “came into Family Court as a new judge and did the best she could do.”
He added: “Perhaps as good as anyone could do.”
The Observer sent a series of questions to Chief District Judge Regan Miller. They included whether, given the sanctions against the three judges, Family Court is meeting the needs of the public, and whether Blake’s transfer two years ago was tied to any performance issues.
Miller, who is retiring next month, did not respond.
‘Misinformation,’ Blake claims
Local court races are normally decorous affairs, with low-key campaigns that draw little attention, particularly in a primary. But the exchanges between Blake and Moen have become increasingly personal.
Blake says Moen is the only attorney she has sanctioned as a judge, accusing her of filing a frivolous and poorly argued motion “for the purpose of unnecessarily delaying” a custody case in 2017.
Moen, who owns a law practice, says she decided to enter the race, in part, due to Blake taking six months to rule on spousal support for one of her clients.
“During that time, (the client’s) bills went unpaid and she accumulated unnecessary debt and unnecessary legal fees,” Moen said in her January letter to the Black Political Caucus. “I am running because our community deserves better.”
Last week, a Moen campaign volunteer working at the Beatties Ford Library precinct accused Blake’s husband, who was also working at the polls, of pressuring an African American early voter not to cast her ballot for “a white woman over a black woman.”
“I hope we all have the opportunity to cast our votes in a peaceful manner, and that it’s done in a way where no one feels intimidated or threatened,” Moen said at the time.
Blake told the Observer that her husband doesn’t remember making the “white woman” comment, that he approached Moen’s volunteer only after he heard her sharing inaccurate information about Blake’s supposed backlog of cases.
After arriving at the voting site, Blake said she had a conversation with campaign officials in which she explained “the intensity surrounding this campaign.”
She added: “I also had a respectful conversation with my opponent’s campaign operative and expressed my regret that she was provided with misinformation about me.”