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.
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.
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. Just how many families were kept waiting under Blake’s watch now drives an increasingly rancorous debate. Read the full report in The Charlotte Observer.