Judges Carolyn Minder and James Cawthon preside over the Ada County Domestic Violence Court in Boise, Idaho.
The court is one of three domestic violence courts in the U.S. selected by the Department of Justice’s Office
on Violence Against Women to serve as a mentor court, helping other courts develop more effective responses to domestic
violence. In this episode of New Thinking, the judges explain how they divide their duties, work closely with the
community, and promote rapid disposition of cases.
MINDER: The judiciary doesn’t drive what we do. The community drives what it expects the judiciary to do,
in order to be responsive.
[Music begins to fade away]
ROBERT V. WOLF:
Hi, I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Today I have a chance to talk with
Judge James Cawthon and Judge Carolyn Minder of the Aida County Domestic Violence Court in Boise Idaho. It’s nice
to have you here.
JUDGE MINDER: Thank you.
WOLF: You are both here at the Center for Court Innovation offices in New
York because your court was one of three domestic violence courts in the U.S. selected by the Department of Justice’s
Office on Violence Against Women as a mentor court. So I thought maybe we could start with the mentor court program.
Judge Cawthon, what’s the idea behind the program?
JUDGE CAWTHON: The main idea here
is we’ve had a lot of experience over the years with domestic violence courts across the nation being successful
at promoting offender accountability, bringing about behavioral change in offenders, strengthening families, strengthening
communities. And as these courts continue to grow, the idea is that the mentor sites can provide training for domestic
violence courts, provide trainings to jurisdictions and communities who are interested in wanting to set up domestic
JUDGE MINDER: And it’s intriguing to me that we were selected because
we started differently than how other courts have begun. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’70s and so my background
is from community organization and working things up. And so we started with a prosecuting attorney who was deeply
committed to the notion and myself and one other judge, now that’s moved on, talking about what we need to do differently,
but we needed it to be a community response to a very significant community issue, and having the judiciary be responsive
to what the community was saying—this is what we need. And so the judiciary doesn’t drive what we do. The community
drives what it expects the judiciary to do in order to be responsive. So that’s why our court is different.
WOLF: What role does the community play? How have you gotten the community to play that
JUDGE MINDER: They sit at the table and they are real stakeholders. They are heard,
they bring their ideas to the table, they tell us what doesn’t work, what is working, they identify the gaps for
us, and they are free to tell us what they believe that we need to do in order to be more responsive. And concomitantly
with that, we’ve had leaders who are being pushed from their officers in the field to treat domestic violence differently,
instead of the leadership saying no, we can’t make these kinds of changes, we’re not interested in changing our administrative
practices. They are being compelled to address community needs that are bubbling up from victim advocates, from law
enforcement, from the family justice systems.
WOLF: Why don’t you tell me, then, how
a domestic violence court works?
JUDGE CAWTHON: The model has a number of different
pieces, all engineered to answer certain problems in the way business had been done. One is, it promotes the rapid
disposition of cases. In other words, the goal is that within 45 to 60 days from the date of arrest, that case is
disposed of in some fashion—plead guilty, found guilty, found not guilty at trial. And the notion here: one, it’s
always better to get an offender into treatment, into counseling sooner rather than later. That’s obvious. But the
other thing is that the use of the contact orders and things of that nature, you really put a family in turmoil when
they’re having to be separated for prolonged periods of time—months and month and months. Victims at risk, children
suffer from that. And so that quick disposition of the case addresses those two things.
thing is we have participants from the judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, treatment providers,
evaluators who are all specialized in the area of domestic violence. It’s a complex issue that has a number
of different facets – comes in many different forms. And so that specialized knowledge, that specialized dedication
promotes a much better disposition of a case.
And the final thing is the notion of having a court
that is focused on dealing with this family that has found itself into the criminal process, and so our court would
deal not just with the criminal case, but a custody case, a divorce case. In the case of Judge Minder’s expertise,
if there’s a child protection issue, neglect, or abuse case. So one judge, one family, a rapid disposition of the
case to promote the accountability and treatment and change of the offender, and to try to promote the stability
of the family.
JUDGE MINDER: We are really active in terms of judicial monitoring. We
bring these people back and we get these reports to see where people are in the process, and are they engaging or
WOLF: And if they’re not, you’re giving them prompts or sanctions, or feedback
of some kind?
JUDGE MINDER: Correct. It’s the place as well, where the victim is finding
out, how is the defendant doing? Is the defendant holding him or herself accountable? Is the
defendant doing everything that they’re supposed to be doing in order to help our family heal from this?
And so it’s a really nice venue whereby the victim is hearing from all of the people involved, who on some level
are more objective than the information coming from the defendant himself, or herself. We have as many number of
female defendants in our court as we do male offenders. The whole point being that the community is helping the victim
understand what they’re doing on probation, how successful are they being? And then our response to that
is immediate accountability, which would include going into jail because when we sentence we maintain the right to
impose discretionary jail time for non-compliance with probation terms.
for you is reflected in the active partnership between the bench and the probation.
Very active partnership. They and the prosecuting attorneys offices are in really good contact with one another but
we don’t anything ex parte. All of our information comes on the record. Probation run accountability groups, they
report immediately when there’s new police reports as to their defendants. And so we will see someone typically within
30 days of sentence. If they’re marginal, we may see them a week later because Judge Cawthon and I share the docket,
and if somebody’s off track, we’ll put them on the calendar for the next week expecting that somebody’s gonna go
to those accountability groups, do what they need to do. So probation is absolutely critical to our ability to assess
accountability and safety of the victim.
WOLF: You both preside over this docket. How
does that work?
JUDGE CAWTHON: When Judge Minder created the court, we didn’t have the
resources to create the court. And so Judge Minder and another judge, our administrative district judge, Judge Hanson,
decided that they could carve one court out of two judge’s dockets. The way it works is this: one week Judge Minder
is doing domestic violence court and I’m doing my regular criminal court docket. The following week, I’ll do domestic
violence court and she’s doing her child protection docket. And certain cases are assigned to me, certain cases are
assigned to Judge Minder. We obviously work together as exigencies present themselves of hearing cases on each other’s
docket to make sure we’re on top of things and that cases are being processed quickly.
I’m curious, are your temperaments such that, from the perspective of a victim or an offender who comes into the
court they’d expect equivalent experience?
JUDGE MINDER: Yes, and I think the reason
for that is not necessarily that we’re exactly alike in terms of our temperament, but we have enough people at our
table and we have enough team meetings, and we are all educated on the same points, that we share a common philosophy
and we share common goals, and we consistently look at what those goals and objectives are, and we can agree with
them. And so we have the ability to treat everyone—not the same, because facts are so unique, but know that no one
would be suffering as a consequence of coming before a female judge more so than coming before Judge Cawthon if you’re
a male defendant.
WOLF: I wonder, do you think you bring to it—because of your genders,
perhaps—different perspectives or enhanced perspectives because you can work together and share your perspectives?
JUDGE CAWTHON: Sure. I think where that manifests itself is when we’re having team meetings. Instead
of it just being my input and my ideas, we’re bouncing things off of each other, working together, talking through
issues and it really helps to come to the right resolution about the way to proceed on things.
MINDER: That, and we do share the probation violation docket. One of us takes the probation violation once
a month and so the month of December, I believe it will be my probation docket that I’ll hear all of the PV’s that
involve the cases that Judge Cawthon has either tried or dispositioned and is currently reviewing. And so we have
a system in place where we take extraordinarily good notes relative to a defendant’s progress. We take notes relative
to the victim’s comments, what their concerns are. So by the time I open a file, I can go through Judge Cawthon’s
notes and he can do the same for mine, and we’re really up to date.
WOLF: Since you,
as a mentor court, are going to be guiding your courts in developing strategies for dealing with domestic violence
cases in a more effective way, I wonder what advice you’d give them.
I think it just takes real perseverance, and real dedication, and patience in talking to people, and figuring out
“What do I have here in my community, and what are my resources, and what can I change?” Even small changes can make
a huge difference. If a judge just decided “I’m gonna judicially monitor domestic violence cases,” that would make
a significant change if a court or a probation department or prosecutor’s office wanted to get together and decide,
“We want to look at the evaluation tools we’re using. We want to do a better job of diagnosing and case planning
what offenders need.” You would make a significant difference.
JUDGE MINDER: I agree
with you. And I think that it has to be a personal philosophy on the part of a judge in the course of their day-to-day
jobs to say, “What can we do differently without engaging undue resources, without rocking the boat, and without
really asking for the institution to make changes to accommodate me? What can I do within the context of
the caseload that I currently have, to make life better for the individuals that my life is touching?”
WOLF: Thank you, Judge Carolyn Minder and Judge James Cawthon, for taking the time to talk with
JUDGE CAWTHON: My pleasure.
JUDGE MINDER: You’re
WOLF: I’ve been speaking with Judges James Cawthon and Carolyn Minder of the
Aida County Domestic Violence Court in Boise, Idaho. They are one of the three domestic violence courts in the country
that was selected by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women as mentor courts to help other
courts learn about how to develop and make the best domestic violence court that they can. I’m Rob Wolf, director
for communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To find out more about the Mentor Court program, or to listen
to other New Thinking podcasts, please visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.
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