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May 21, 2024 Podcast

Tips for Appearing in Family Court with Judge Brian Ratledge

Gailor Hunt
Gailor Hunt
Tips for Appearing in Family Court with Judge Brian Ratledge

Join Jaime and the Honorable Judge Brian Ratledge, a seasoned North Carolina District Court Judge overseeing trials and motions in domestic, criminal, civil, and domestic violence courts. As the lead domestic court judge for Wake County, N.C., Judge Ratledge shares how individuals can best prepare themselves when appearing in front of a judge for family law cases. From addressing common litigant mistakes to offering tips for alleviating anxiety before court appearances, Judge Ratledge sheds light on the reality of family court proceedings, courtroom etiquette, and factors that judges consider when determining outcomes in family court cases.

This information is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have any questions before taking action, consult an attorney who is licensed in your state.

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Note: Our Podcast, “Tips for Appearing in Family Court with Judge Brian Ratledge”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.

Jaime: Welcome to A Year and a Day. I’m Jaime Davis, board-certified family law attorney at Gailor Hunt. On this show, I talk with lawyers, psychologists, and other experts with the goal of helping you navigate divorce without destruction. In this episode, I’m talking with the Honor Judge Brian Ratledge. Judge Ratledge is a North Carolina district court judge who presides over trials and motions in domestic, criminal, civil, and domestic violence courts. He is also the lead domestic court judge for Wake County. I’m excited to talk to Judge Ratledge about how individuals can be best prepared if they find themselves appearing in front of a judge in their family law cases. Thanks for joining me, Judge Ratlidge.

Judge Ratledge: You are welcome. It’s glad to be here, Jaime I appreciate the invite.

Jaime: Absolutely. So tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and what made you want to become a judge.

Judge Ratledge: Well, I didn’t grow up in a family of lawyers or folks that had a judge background. I actually grew up the youngest of three kids and neither of my parents had college degrees and they wanted us to go. And we did. And I can remember it might have been something happened somewhere from junior high into high school that I thought, hmm, I think I might want to go in to be a lawyer and ultimately a judge. And the reason why I say something happened is I can remember in seventh grade in life science, turning around and telling the girl behind me, Teresa, that I wanted to be a disc jockey. It’s a good thing I didn’t decide to do that because I don’t know that those exist anymore. But that’s what I wanted to do. And then, you know, I think just through some reading and watching television, I then became interested in law. And in high school, I remember joking and telling a couple of my buddies that I wanted to be on the Supreme Court of the United States. Now, I don’t think that’s going to happen and that’s okay with me, but I’m very happy with, with where it’s all turned out now.

Jaime: That’s a great story. So family court, you are the lead domestic court judge. And I know that you see a lot of things in that role. In my experience, clients are often nervous about appearing in family court. What advice would you give to litigants to help alleviate their anxiety and to prepare effectively for their court appearance?

Judge Ratledge: There’s several things that come to mind. The first thing I would say when I get asked that. Judges, I’ll say us collectively, we know that you are already stressed and coming to court. We know that you’d rather not be there. You’re either being brought in because the other side has filed something against you and you don’t want to come or you filed a case because you feel like, hey, this is my last stop. This is the last place I can go for help. And so from the start, we know that you’re stressed as it is. Another thing I would say that would help people is to know why you’re in court and where you’re supposed to be. And that may sound kind of bizarre for me to say that, but people, for whatever reason, routinely come to court and they don’t have any information as to why they’re there. And what I mean is maybe they’re the ones who are seeking help or they’re the ones defending themselves and they don’t have their case number, their file number. They don’t even know what courtroom to be. And that’s a little bit frustrating because there’s not a lot of other places in life where you do this. When you go to the doctor’s office, you know, hey, I’m here to see Dr. so-and-so. Or when you’re enrolling your child in school and you get the placement from, I don’t know, just pick an elementary school, you’re going to get something from school that typically says you’re in kindergarten in room 123 with Ms. Jones. You have that info. Just like when you buy movie tickets, you usually know where the theater is and whatnot. Or if you’re taking your child to the ballpark and it’s four fields, you usually know, hey, we play for the Rangers and we’re on the 9 and 11 age group. It really is striking sometimes how often, even happened to me yesterday, folks just come to court with nothing. And it cuts across all spectrums. So know why you’re there. Is it a custody case? And know where you’re supposed to be. I know that may sound elementary, but that is a big thing. Another thing is, as best as you can, be on time. Look, I understand that traffic can get you. One of my kids, I… I drop off quite often to school and it can the commute from dropping him off to the courthouse should take me 20 minutes. There’s some days it takes me 40 to 45. And so I get it. But quite often, well, court starts at nine. People will come in at nine, 45 or 10 and want to be heard. By then, don’t be surprised if the judge has already dismissed your case just because we have a large caseload. Another thing I would mention to try to put you at ease, sometimes folks don’t know, how should I address the judge? It’s fine to say, yes, sir, no, sir, yes, ma’am, no, ma’am, or yes, your Honor no, your Honor. Don’t feel like you’ve got to get all the words correct. We can sense when somebody doesn’t have the right word, but we know what they’re looking for. Another couple things is prepare with your attorney before coming to court. Don’t wait until the morning of your case. You can kind of tell when that’s going on. It’s not really fair to your attorney. It’s also not really fair to you. And the last thing I would say is do your best to dress appropriately. The main thing is don’t be a distraction. And what I mean by that is I’m very look, I know people come from all different type of backgrounds, different cultures, different socioeconomic strata. As I mentioned earlier, neither of my parents had college degrees and we were working middle class. And so my parents didn’t have a whole lot of nice thread to do it, as you would say. But, you know, you don’t want to you don’t want to come to court if you can avoid it looking like you’ve been doing yard work for the past 12 hours. You also there’s no need for you to come dressed up with, you know, informal attire. The best thing I could say, I don’t know what. The scene is out there now, but I would say come to court if you can dress like you, you’d be going to somebody who’s setting you up on a blind date. You know, you’re not, you know, like I said, you didn’t come in from exercising, but you’re also not going, um, out on some formal venture. I hope those are a few things that are helpful, Jaime.

Jaime: Yeah, I think those are some great tips. And I will just say, as a lawyer appearing in family court, I try to adhere to a lot of those myself. You know, being early and dressed appropriately and mainly knowing what courtroom I’m going to, those are things that I try to pay attention to as well.

Judge Ratledge: Sure. And, you know, the dress, you know, aspect, like I said, people have different things and have different budgets. I get that. But on nearly, I will say, as representing the courts, there are times that we make mistakes. You might get a piece of paper that tells you the courthouse, but it doesn’t tell you what courtroom. Judges are very forgiving on that. We understand that those happen. So sometimes we make that mistake. But more often than not, the info you need is on a couple of different documents. And just be mindful of being where you have to be, because not only can it look like that you’re not prepared, but it affects you if you’re late because we think you’re not there. And if you come strolling in, then we think, well, I guess they got it resolved or I guess they don’t need to talk to us.

Jaime: Are there any common misconceptions about family court that you frequently encounter? And how can litigants better understand the reality of the court system?

Judge Ratledge: It’s funny, when you posed this question to me, a few things immediately came to mind. The first for folks to understand when it comes to family court is our dockets are overloaded. I don’t know that people really understand the extent of that. I don’t like continuing cases. And I know that if you’re a mom or a dad and you’ve got something out there, you don’t like your case being continued either. The way our calendars are structured, there are some courtrooms where we’re in where whoever is at the top of the list, they get priority. The only reason somebody may not get heard first is if the statute requires that I’ve got to hear a case of a different type first. So there’s just not enough judges. There’s not enough clerks. There’s not enough bailiffs and not enough courtrooms. So we’re overloaded is the first thing. The second thing, and I sense this a lot. Because, again, with family court, people are emotionally charged, and I get it. But just because a judge won’t let you come in and say what you want. Does not mean that the judge doesn’t care. A judge is, we do care, but we don’t have time. And I’m sure you might hear this when you’re meeting with clients. But we as judges in the courtroom, we don’t have time to quote, to go all the way back to the beginning of a person’s relationship with the other side. And oftentimes when we’re in court, we’re not there to always go back to the beginning. And so as you can imagine in a full courtroom or something packed, we have to keep the topic moving because it is a delicate balance because your case matters, but there’s other people waiting who feel the same way about their case. And so it’s not, if a judge just won’t let you say anything, because sometimes people want to talk about things that really aren’t relevant to why we’re there. The third thing I would say is a judge doesn’t make up their mind in advance what decision is going to be made. It’s amazing to me how I will read a motion in a case for maybe for a child custody claim. And then when I get in the trial, what I hear, sometimes it lines up with the motion. Other times it goes in a different direction. And so you never know. I never know what I’m going to hear until that hearing is unfolding moment by moment. And, you know, as well as I do, if you’ve had trials that oftentimes there’s a surprise in a trial that nobody expects or that one side didn’t see coming or sometimes that both sides don’t see coming. So those are some things I would mention for people to understand that we’re overloaded. I do not like continuing cases. I know that you don’t either. We have to be mindful and stewards of managing the court’s time. It’s not about me as a judge. There will be a day where I’m no longer on the bench. And there’ll be somebody else behind me. And so we’re trying our best to manage the caseload and give the time that is needed for the case to be heard so that you can get a thoughtful decision. And so also that we can move on to the next case.

Jaime: Yeah, I try to… You know, inform my clients that patience is key. You will get your day in court. But you want it done right, not quick. And sometimes that means waiting until you get your turn.

Judge Ratledge: Correct. Yeah. And you know, the adage, you know, the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they do grind. I mean, yes, they you have to be patient and you see it more than I do. But you probably watch some of your clients age through the process, depending upon how how long it takes. I have seen that before where I will have a custody case early on. And then, you know, a year, a year and a half later, we’re finally hearing the alimony and equitable distribution claim. And sometimes it’s stunning to me. I will see a mom or a dad come in and I’ll be like, wow. This is taking its toll. And I don’t know anything about the case. All I see is just the passage of time.

Jaime: Right. Yeah, litigation can definitely take an emotional toll on folks for sure. What are some key factors that litigants should consider when deciding whether they want to represent themselves in family court or whether they want to hire a lawyer?

Judge Ratledge: Well, I think a litigant, ultimately, you have to decide what’s most important to you and what you value. And what I mean by that is. You know as good as I do that some people value their time with their kids more than their assets. Some people, unfortunately, value assets, I hate to say it, more than they do their kids because you can tell as things unfold where they spend their time and money. So a person, you’re going to have to decide whether you think it’s worth your time and effort to hire a lawyer for the particular case that you’re facing. Um, another something to consider is that in regular civil court matters and family court matters, the court does not appoint lawyers. Oftentimes I’ll have a mom or a dad come in and it’s a custody case and we’re not going to be able to hear it that day or even an alimony case. I’ve seen this and somebody will ask for a lawyer and I have to tell them, hey, we don’t appoint lawyers for these type cases. So people just automatically assume that because we’re appointing a lawyer in a criminal case that we do the same in a civil case. Now, we will come back later whenever I talk about contempt. That’s the one time or the most frequent time where the court will appoint a lawyer where there’s a civil case or family court case and someone’s not following the order and we have to have a hearing to determine whether that’s the case. Also, make the decision early on whether to hire a lawyer. Don’t wait. Don’t delay in doing so. I’ve seen that happen plenty of times where I have had a person ask for a new court date because they want to hire a lawyer and I grant it. And then when we come back, they still haven’t hired a lawyer. The ongoing request to hire a lawyer is not going to delay the proceedings. So, yeah, I guess now that baseball season is early on, I guess we could borrow a phrase from an old movie. Don’t lollygag if you’re thinking about hiring a lawyer. Be proactive.

Jaime: And, you know, something that I think folks should consider if they decide that they want to represent themselves is that. They’re going to be held to the same standard when it comes to the rules of evidence and civil procedure as they would if they did have an attorney. So if they’re not willing to spend the time to read the rules, understand what our local rules require, and if they have the resources available, they may want to consider hiring counsel.

Judge Ratledge: Sure. And that’s why I’m saying they’re going to have to sit down and decide what they value because it all depends on what it is the other side is seeking. And you are correct. I see people’s body language shift in their chair in court when they want to present something to me and the opposing side has a lawyer and they make a hearsay objection. And I have to hold that pro se, the party representing themselves, to the same standard. And so that is something. That people need to make part of the equation. Sometimes people, I’ve seen folks who have plenty of money, they just have Basically, we can say just too much pride to want to go out and hire a lawyer. And then there’s times where I see people who don’t have enough money. Man, they really want a lawyer and they just can’t do it. That said, I’ve seen people. I mean, are you better suited if you have a lawyer come in? Yeah, you are. But I’ve seen people represent themselves, you know, do well for the type of issue that I’m hearing. That’s not a I wouldn’t take that and assume that you can represent yourself in every type of case. There’s a reason why we all endured law school for three years and then the bars.

Jaime: So for those folks who do choose to represent themselves, are there resources available to assist them, at least in Wake County?

Judge Ratledge: There are a couple of them. You probably have heard about a year, year and a half ago, the legal support center opened up on the first floor of the Wake County Courthouse. As you walk in on the Fayetteville Street exit. Go through security. As soon as you go through security, you hang a left. And from 9 a.m. To 1 p.m. Daily, there are some staffers who can assist you in doing your own filling out forms and submitting your own claims. They can’t give you legal advice. I think from time to time, there may be attorneys that drop in just unannounced just to sort of help do some pro bono work. But it’s not a given as to when that happens. That’s just, you know, attorneys feel like they have an hour to give while they’re waiting or whatnot in court. Also, if you go to the website, you can go look up Wake County, and there are some forms that you can download, some do-it-yourself packets for when it comes to things like divorce or seeking custody or maybe child support. So there are some things out there that are simple tools. And as I mentioned that, especially with the forms, just because you use the form doesn’t mean you’re going to get what you’re asking for. But it does put things in the right framework to make it easier for the judge to read and for the other side to see what claim is being made.

Jaime: In your experience presiding over family court cases, what are some common mistakes that litigants make during their court proceedings and how can they avoid them?

Judge Ratledge: Great question. The first thing is this is not television. Even when I was home last night, I saw a commercial come on and I thought, man. Folks are very surprised when they come to my courtroom or I’m guessing some other judges. We’re not after clicks. We’re not after zingers or ratings. And so we actually do things in a very orderly manner. There will be disagreements in court and during a trial, but we don’t allow or permit shouting over others or physically fighting or threatening. We’ve had I’ve had things get out of hand before. That gets you led out of a door different from the one that you came in just because you can’t have that. We’re really actually trying to get to the issues and provide some clarity and a path forward for everybody. So this is an orderly proceeding. It’s not TV. Another thing that people and I know this this happens frequently because I have to address it. But when if there’s a witness testifying, you can’t sit as an observer and try to mouth answers or communicate or send signals to the witness. Everybody who takes an oath to testify, they have to, they have to stand on their own two feet. And so that’s an important one where somebody in the back or. Maybe this has happened to you, Ms. Davis. Your client next to you spouts out the answer as to maybe the child’s birthday. If one parent is up on the stand and they can’t remember, you can’t prompt a witness, okay. Another thing is even if the other side does not show up, you still have to prove your case. Don’t assume that you’re going to get what you’re asking for just because the other side doesn’t show. You may be asking for something. You may be asking for relief or a solution that the law doesn’t allow us to give you. Or you may not just be able to meet your case. I remember several years ago being in court. This one stood out to me only because I remember I sensed a chill kind of going over in the courtroom. But there was an elderly gentleman who showed up for a no contact order. He was having a dispute with a neighbor. And it was something that was fairly, in my mind and I think in other observers, fairly trivial. And he just didn’t have anything that substantiated his claim. I dismissed his case. And his comment to me was, but the other side isn’t here. And I said, sir, you still have to. Show proof of what it is that you’re alleging this person has done, which merits me granting you the no contact order. That one stood out in my mind just because he just assumed that since he was there, the other side didn’t didn’t didn’t come, that he was going to get what he asked for. Another thing to say, and I see this a lot, but if you have an attorney, let your attorney work for you. And I’m going to stop here in just a second, Jaime so you can chime in on this. I’m sure you’ll want to. But if you have a lawyer and you’re sitting at the table and there’s a trial going on, let your attorney work for you in court. Don’t don’t distract him or her endlessly with reaching over and whispering in their ear. I still, from my sports playing days and even now in my officiating high school sports, I still have pretty good peripheral vision. And it is amazing to me how many times there will be a witness up on the stand. And they’ll be being they are receiving questions from their lawyer. And then over here at this other table, I will see the opposing party just endlessly distracting their lawyer with notes or whispering on every little detail such that their lawyer is torn between, you know, facilitating their client’s immediate need or perceived need versus catching the all important testimony that’s unfolding in court. And I have watched I’m convinced I have watched more litigants distract their attorney. It’s one thing if you write something down and show them. But when you’re constantly elbowing or tapping or whatnot, it is a distraction. And I really think you harm your case. You want to chime in on this one, Jaime?

Jaime: Yeah, so one of the things that I do is I give my client a notepad, just like you mentioned, and I ask them to write down any notes that they think that I need to have. And I try to let them know that if they want me to be able to cross-examine the other party effectively, I need to hear what they’re saying. And if I can’t hear them, there’s no way I’m going to be able to cross-examine their testimony. And, you know, practically speaking, another tip for lawyers, if you have two lawyers present in court representing a client, you can use that other lawyer kind of as a buffer at the table so that the client is one person removed and the, you know, co-counsel is the one fielding those questions. And I found that that really helps.

Judge Ratledge: Yeah, I’ve seen the notepad before. That’s a common practice. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a ton of people just not go by that and they just feel the need to sort of bug their attorney. And I get it. They’ve hired a lawyer. So the only other thing I would add is another point that I’ve made is when if you’re on the witness stand and an attorney objects during your testimony, don’t keep talking or try to talk over the attorney. Let the judge sort it out. Oftentimes, if there’s an objection, then the other attorney will chime in as well. And it can get a little bit crazy for a couple of seconds when people continue to try to keep going. So I hope those are a few helpful bullet points on some common mistakes or if there’s anything you want to ask me as far as that goes.

Jaime: No, absolutely. I think that those are some great tips. And if folks will follow those, it will make their court experience a lot less stressful and maybe not enjoyable, but certainly less stressful for sure. So, family court judges often have to make decisions that profoundly impact the lives of families and children. Can you shed some light on the thought process behind making these decisions and the factors that judges consider when determining outcomes in family court cases?

Judge Ratledge: Sure. Well, as you know, I mean, there is no. Let’s take a custody case, for example, that is typically that’s the most charged issue in between families that that that are going separate ways. You know, I don’t have a formula or a blueprint to give somebody on how to win their case. But, you know, I mean, what is the North Star in all custody cases? What’s the standard?

Jaime: Best interest.

Judge Ratledge: The best interest of the minor child or the minor children. And so, correct. It’s in our statute. We see it repeated over and over again in case law. And so some of the things that and again, it’s not a laundry list, but, you know, when a judge is hearing a custody case, are the tangible needs of the child or children being met when the kids are with you? Are you a responsible adult? Are you always late? If you tell me that you’re always on time, but I see that when the custody, that when the kids are with you, they’re arriving late to school and you came in 30 minutes late for this hearing, you can probably see how that’s going to leave an impression on a judge. How well do you know your child? How well do you know their school? How well do you know their teacher or teachers? What rec sports teams they play on? Where they have dance practice, where they get tutoring, if they have tutoring and where they get help, who helps them with their IEP. It’s actually somewhat. Surprising the number of folks who will come in and they don’t even know their the name of their of their child or children’s teachers. That pops up somewhat frequently. Another thing that goes through a judge’s mind and again, it’s not the laundry list, but here’s some is what kind of environment do you foster at home in terms of encouraging the child or children to love and Honor and respect the other parent? Do you communicate civilly? This is probably the biggest one that that I see fall apart for people. But do you communicate in a civil manner with the other parent? Note, I’m not saying that I’m not asking if you like them, not asking if you love them. Obviously, if you did, you probably wouldn’t be in our courtroom. But I have watched over and over again. People people blush when their text messages or their gifts or their photos or social media posts emerge at trial because what seemed good or the perfect snarky comment in the moment. They suddenly realize, boy, this looks really bad now that it’s made part of the public record. It’s pretty amazing how people just tend to react instead of thoughtfully respond. And so a lot of times, you know, we want parents to co-parent and who’s going to be willing to co-parent. It’s a pretty dynamic formula. But I tell people often. If you will find a way to encourage your child. If you will foster love and encouragement for the other parent. You will start to experience that yourself because the child already feels like they’re already caught between the crosshairs of mom and dad. And so if you will, you will foster love and encouragement, appreciation for the other parent. They will feel more freed up to do so for you. And so those are the kind of things that I tend to think about. They’re not all of them. But on a lot of cases where I have parties that are not represented by attorneys, I will often ask them, hey, sir, aside from the issues that you have with mom, the stuff y’all have going on, is she a good mom? And it’s pretty amazing how people will sometimes pause and go, yeah. Dads will go, yeah, she’s a good mom. And mom will do the same. It’s almost like they never realize, despite their personal acrimony for the other, no, I’m not really concerned about the child when he’s in dad’s care or in mom’s care. And oftentimes in court, it seems like that’s the first time it’s dawned on them that the issues are between mom and dad. They don’t really have much of a problem with the child or children when being cared for by the other parent. Does that make sense?

Jaime: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to understand this when they’re involved in disputes over their children. But, you know, your children need to be free to love both of their parents.

Judge Ratledge: Mm-hmm.

Jaime: Not be tainted by one parent’s view of the other parent. The adult things that happened, you know, during the marriage that led to the dissolution of the marriage should not be impacting the child. The child didn’t choose this. The adults did. And it’s up to them to make sure that this transition, you know, from one home to two in most cases, goes as smoothly as it can for the child. Because again, they didn’t ask for this. They’re just trying to be a kid.

Judge Ratledge: Correct. All of us coming into this world, none of us got to pick our parents. And so our parents have flaws. My parents did. Yours did. We all come in with gaps. But it is important that the kids already feel it. And it’s going to manifest itself in certain ways. And I think it’s a fair thing. I have yet to encounter any judge. Whether it’s here in Wake County or another one at a conference here in the state or outside the state. I don’t know of any judge who appreciates it when moms or dads withhold the children from the other parent. Because it just, it creates a lot of damage when you do that. And I tend to take, I try as best I can. I’m not perfect at it, but I really try, you know, when thinking about custody cases, I’ve said this before, I really try to take a long view with custody. And what I mean by that is sometimes I see parents with good intentions trying to right every wrong or get everything fixed before a child turns 18. And I understand. I get it because there’s this concern that as soon as the child turns 18, he or she won’t want to talk to me or they won’t love me as much. I think parents, well, I’ll let you give the legal advice that you need to all your clients and everybody else. I think there are situations where some relationships are just going to take time to repair. And you don’t have to have it all fixed by the time they turn 18. And doing what you got to do so that you can have that ongoing relationship, if there is something in disrepair in their late teens into early 20s, there’s still hope. And so. That also factors into my mind. Sometimes I feel like parents, there are parents out there who’ve made bad decisions and trying to right the wrongs. They feel like they’ve got to hit the proverbial lottery in custody court to try to get this all fixed so that the child for the next three years, that relationship can be repaired. It may take longer than three or four or five years for a relationship to be repaired.

Jaime: Well, and I think sometimes the best way to fix that is to try to bring the conflict with the other parent to an end. You know. Continuing to fight with the other parent may not further your objective of improving your relationship with your child, especially if the child is aware of the conflict and one parent or the other is involving them in it.

Judge Ratledge: Sure. You got it.

Jaime: We’ve been talking a lot about custody cases and how they can become emotionally charged. How do judges handle emotional conflicts between parties while ensuring fair and impartial proceedings?

Judge Ratledge: Well, as you know. Managing a heated contested trial can be a challenge. I love it. I mean, I love court. I love my job. You know, the God-given gift that I have every day, and I hope it shows, but it has to be done civilly. And there is a way for us to do that. I fully understand there’s going to be testimony on the witness stand that one party believes and the other party doubts. But we’re going to disagree the right way. We’re not going to talk over the attorney. We’re not going to shout. We’re not going to pound the table. One thing that I do, because this will happen more frequently than I like, but sometimes when a witness is on the stand, let’s say you have a custody trial or even I’ve seen it happen in alimony cases or equitable distribution cases. Where we’re going over some of the statutory factors addressing either an alimony claim or an equitable distribution claim. Sometimes a party, instead of talking to their attorney and talking to the judge, instead of talking to the attorney that’s asking the question or turning to me and answering. They will turn and begin to try to eyeball or intimidate the opposing party. And that can get a little bit awkward. I have watched people get viscerally upset when answering questions. And instead of answering a question, it becomes more of a passive aggressive way to start or they think it’s a way to start communicating to that other person. We don’t allow that. I’ve had to jump in a number of times and say, sir, ma’am, you need to look to your you need to look to your attorney when answering or you can look at me. But you don’t need to be trying to talk indirectly to the opposing party. Another thing that is frequent, this happens and I have the deputies help me with this, but we make sure people who are observing are not intimidating witnesses by where they’re sitting. Now, do you have any idea, Jaime what I may be referring to when I mention that intimidating witness, depending upon where they’re sitting?

Jaime: I think I do, but please give us more detail about that.

Judge Ratledge: So this happens frequently in a custody case where, hypothetically speaking, I’ve seen it with mom and dad. But let’s say it’s mom’s custody case and dad is up on the stand. If mom has a new boyfriend, and I’m just using this for an example, because there’s plenty of times where it’s dad has the girlfriend. All right.

Jaime: Sure.

Judge Ratledge: Then when dad is up on the stand. The new boyfriend. Or a new husband and it will come out that maybe they don’t get along i can’t imagine why um he, I’ve seen that new boyfriend or new beau or new partner or spouse sit directly behind the shoulder of the attorney asking questions. And they’re in the line of sight, sort of sending an indirect signal of messing with the witness. And then when we break. And go to the other attorney, guess what that observer does, Jaime?

Jaime: Switches spots.

Judge Ratledge: They switch spots. Yeah. So I’ve gotten to where, and I have deputies help me. Usually I’m on it because I’m very keenly aware, but there’ve been a number of times, sir, ma’am, you’re going to have to reposition yourself. You’re going to come sit here in the middle, or you’re going to move a few rows back. You’re not going to sit just right over the shoulder so that you can send your message. And that does happen from time to time. It’s not every day. It’s not every week, but We’ve had to routinely reposition people before. I can even think of a case this year where I had a gentleman who had been warned by me. He was prompting a witness. I caught him prompting again after I’d already warned him and everybody in the courtroom. And there were multiple people there. And I had him removed. I don’t say I as in it’s not about me, but we’re not going to have folks be messed with. OK, so that’s that’s some of the things. And I tell folks, look, I know it’s emotional, but we’re going to get through it. But we’re going to do it in an orderly fashion.

Jaime: Right. It’s just about being civil and respectful, and everybody will get their turn to talk. You certainly don’t need to talk over the other person. So you touched on this briefly earlier. You mentioned contempt. Once you have made a decision in a case and a formal court order has been entered, what are some potential consequences to a party if they don’t comply with the court order?

Judge Ratledge: Well, the first and foremost, as you know, is… The party who says, hey, I don’t think this other side is following the court order, they can file a motion to have the court hold that individual in contempt. It’s as we call it in North Carolina, there’s two similar but different things. One is emotion to show cause and the other is emotion for contempt. They’re similar, but they’re a little bit different, but they ultimately take us to the same place. It is the contempt case where the court will often appoint an attorney. And the reason why is if a person has violated a court order, there’s a number of punishments available to the court, one of which is jail time. And so that is the scenario in family court where we often appoint an attorney. Now, much to people’s surprise, we don’t just appoint an attorney just because you ask for one. You have to fill out an affidavit that includes your income and your expenses. And there have been most of the time the people that fill them out. You know, they qualify as indigent for the purposes of having an attorney appointed for this limited case. It’s not an attorney who’s going to represent you on all claims. It’s just on the allegations that you’re not following a court order. So you have to fill out a form. A judge has to approve it. There are times where I can see people thinking, perhaps in a situation regarding where money is owed, that they realize, ooh, I don’t want to fill-out this affidavit showing my income and expenses. Probably once or twice a year, I’ll have somebody, once they get the form, they’ll say, Your Honor I’m going to go represent myself or I’m going to go hire a lawyer. For obvious reason, because it’s alleged that maybe they’re not paying child support. And if they’re raking in $5,000 more a month than their expenses, and they owe $500 in child support, they’re going to have some talking to do. You can see that scenario happening. Um, another possible consequence, and I’ve had this happen before, um, is as part of contempt, it’s not just jail time. You can be assessed fines or attorney’s fees. Um, if you’re not following a custody order, a judge might order a future hearing to see if custody needs to be modified, um, or if custody, why you’re not following this case. I’ve had those before in a couple of rare scenarios where I’ve thought, you know what, um, mom or dad’s not sticking to this. We need to have a hearing and see if the minor child is being affected. And, um, it’s not something that I like to do, but you know, as good as I do, what good is a court order if, if it can’t be enforced and if it can’t be enforced, then why are we here?

Jaime: Yeah, I think one of the most difficult things, especially in custody cases, if you have had one parent who is just used to having made all of the decisions just because that was their role during the marriage, and they’re then involved in a custody lawsuit, and the court finds that both parents are equally fit to have custody, and they have joint custody, and they’re supposed to discuss things about their child and make decisions together. It’s really hard sometimes for that parent who made the decisions to start cooperating with the other parent and involving them. And I’ve seen many clients who have almost gotten themselves in trouble with not following that court order. And, you know, I have to have some stern discussions with them about the details of this order matter. You need to read it, and you need to read it again, and then you need to follow it.

Judge Ratledge: Yeah, great point because, the- Where, it’s funny and probably this is something that I could have included earlier, but people forget. One of the great things that I know that lawyers try to do is get people to settle as much as they can out of court, because when you go to mediation or if you can work out the terms and not everybody works everything out, I get that. There’s going to be times where you don’t get everything worked out and we need to have a hearing. But when you’re in that mediation or settlement discussions, at least you control the outcome. When you come into court, sometimes I see people, they realize for the first time that they’ve lost control. Meaning they don’t get to call a shot anymore. And it’s not that I’m anxious to call a shot. It’s not that some other judge is. It’s just that, hey, this is the parties weren’t able to find common ground. So someone’s got to make the decision. And since you all couldn’t make it together, we’re going to make that decision. And, you know, I hope that it’s hard. I’ll come back to that toward the end. But, you know, sometimes people, it dawns on them that they’re no longer in control. That’s what happened, when you come before a judge, you’ve lost any control that you may have had up to that moment. Does that make sense when I say that? What I mean by you’ve lost control?

Jaime: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a really great point that folks sometimes don’t realize. I mean, that is the beauty of a mediated settlement or any other type of settlement. You and your child’s co-parent or the opposing party, if it’s a property or financial case, you’re in control of what happens and you can fine tune the details of, for example, a custody schedule that works for your children. But, you know, if you and the opposing party can’t agree on these things, you are putting this in the hands of the judge to make that decision. And you’ve got to be okay with that because you’re going to have to live with it.

Judge Ratledge: Yeah, I mean, you’re going to have you’re certainly going to have input. But as I’ve told people before, I might make a decision that you don’t like and that the other side loves. I might make a decision that the other side doesn’t like and that you love. I might make a decision that neither of you like. That’s not my goal, but that could happen. And there are rare days where we make a decision that both parties like. Um, but yeah, with that, with that, trying to work it out. As much as you can work out in advance, do so, because it will spare you the stress and being at the mercy of our overloaded system as well.

Jaime: Absolutely. Well, before we wrap up today, I know you have seen numerous families come through your courtroom over the years. Without revealing any identifying information, is there a case in particular that stands out to you where family court made a positive impact on a family?

Judge Ratledge: Hmm. You know, when I saw that question, I began to think. I’m sure that there has been. I can’t think of any particular case which stands out, but maybe every couple of months. Somebody will say something kind in court or thank me. Those comments are appreciated. We don’t get a whole lot of those, mainly because I think just sort of the dynamic. When we’re in court, you know, we’re because folks have not been able to work things out. And so we have to tell ourselves, hey, that most people out there, when the case is filed, they get it resolved. But some people can’t. So the cases that we have are difficult. And like I was just alluding to a moment ago, I’m mindful of the fact probably the hardest thing for a judge is that and we’re not in this for a popularity contest. But I’m mindful that at least one of the two parties in front of me is not going to like me at the end of the day. And there’s a fair chance that the other side isn’t going to like me either. They’re just going to dislike me a little bit less because of how it turns out. And so I have had folks comment to me like in domestic violence court. That’s where a couple of times things have come up, not necessarily in family court. I did have a lady thank me a couple of months ago when the other party, pro se, was not participating in dividing up the assets. And her life was on hold until she could. Get in front of the court. She was very kind and complimentary, but I can’t think of anything in particular that stands out there. Like I said, there’ve been people that make comments about once every couple of months as they’re leaving. Um, But I know that we’re out there because you do see the product. Honestly, some of the biggest positive results that you can tell is when you put in an order and you come back and there’s been nothing filed in the case in three or four or five years. So that’s sometimes the positive thing that you feel or that you hear about isn’t necessarily the word. It’s more looking at the case file and realizing, hey, they’ve been doing this for five or six years and no one’s filed a contempt claim against the other. No one’s filed a modification.

Jaime: Yeah. Sometimes I think folks just need some rules to follow. And once they’ve had that court experience and there is an order with those rules for them to follow. You know, I think they figure out how to do it and they make it work.

Judge Ratledge: Yeah. And it’s a great point, too. And on the rules to follow, that’s probably I do sympathize. There are some folks and personality types that they really need the clearly written black letter on the page. And fortunately, one thing for people to keep in mind is whenever we’re putting in, like, for example, we have a two or three day trial on custody and the judge writes up an order. There’s it’s really impossible for a judge, for him or her to include every possible scenario of what the parties might find themselves. And I say this typically pops up around like summer breaks or holidays, Christmas or Thanksgiving. There will be something that pops up or something with the school schedule. And parents are arguing, don’t know. Well, should the child there’s a gap of one or two days. Should the child be with mom or child be with dad? There’s really and, you know, as good as I do, we’re not open as the courts to get to quickly dispense of that matter. We don’t we’re not sitting around waiting to give a decision because the holiday is already coming on. Sometimes parents just have to they’re going to in every order. There’s probably going to be. Some scenario that may not neatly fit on a given paragraph. And parties just, you know, they need to find a way to work those out so that they don’t come to court. But sometimes people, there are a couple times a year people will get frustrated. I had that an order doesn’t spell out every scenario. It’s impossible to conceive every scenario because you got kids, you got one kid on a traditional calendar, another kid on track to another kid who’s doing remote. So I’ve probably talked your ear off enough here, Jaime.

Jaime: No, I think this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us.

Judge Ratledge: You’re welcome. Thank you for the opportunity. It’s always a, I will say this sort of hits that interest going back to seventh grade of being on the radio. So I’m not on the radio.

Jaime: There you go.

Judge Ratledge: Would have never known that it would be a podcast way back in the mid 80s, but it is what it is. So I appreciate the invite and I hope that you get some good feedback and it’s a productive episode for you guys.

Jaime: Thank you for listening. If you like this episode, be sure to follow the show wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one. While the information presented is intended to provide you with general information to navigate divorce without destruction, this podcast is not legal advice. This information is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have any questions before taking action, consult an attorney who is licensed in your state. If you are in need of assistance in North Carolina, you can contact us at Gailor Hunt by visiting I’m Jaime Davis, and I’ll talk with you next time on A Year and a Day.

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A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction' is a law podcast produced by Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor & Gibbs, PLLC partner Jaime Davis. You can learn more about Jaime's experience and expertise on her bio page. If you have a question about the podcast, you can email Jaime at Please note, the purpose of this podcast is not to give legal advice. This podcast is for general, informational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice. The information discussed in this podcast is specific to the laws in North Carolina. Before you take any legal action you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.
Ratledge Yellow Tie & Seated (Fall ) crop
Elected in 2018. Re-elected in 2022. Presides over Motions and Trials in Criminal Court, Domestic Court, Domestic Violence Court, and Civil Court. Effective April 1, 2021, designated as Lead Domestic Court Judge for Wake County. Domestic Court encompasses Alimony, Child Custody, Child Support, Domestic Violence, Equitable Distribution, Divorce, Post-Separation Support, and Contempt hearings.

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