Durham judge reprimanded for his words in custody hearing

The N.C. Supreme Court has ordered a public reprimand against a Durham District Court judge who told parents during a contentious 2014 child custody hearing that they were “acting like idiots.”

James T. Hill, a Durham judge since 2002, was reprimanded for making inappropriate comments, improperly exercising his contempt powers, “exhibiting a failure to remain patient, dignified, and courteous to the parties appearing before him” and “failing to maintain order and decorum” in the proceedings.

Efforts to reach Hill on Friday were unsuccessful.

The order, issued Friday, described portions of a custody hearing between RiShawna and Collin Morrison that lasted for several days in August 2014. On Aug. 7, 2014, shortly before the proceedings concluded, Hill threatened the Morrisons with contempt of court after becoming frustrated with their behavior.

The hearing was to sort out competing claims. Rishawna Morrison had contended that Collin Morrison had abandoned their son, 3 years old at the time, and not provided child support. He countered that she had prevented him from seeing his child.

“Now I’m gonna choose my words very carefully,” Hill told the parents in a speech captured by courtroom cameras that are usually on during custody hearings. “Two parents can come in, act like such idiots –” he paused – “when it’s not about the two of you. I could care less about the two of you. The two of you are not important.”

“We don’t need to see adults acting like idiots. Did I say the word idiots? It’s not about you,” Hill said and added that it was about their son. “What the two of you have done to that little boy is unconscionable. I’m talking to both of you. ... Y’all the one that crawled into bed and had sex and made that baby. He didn’t ask to be born. But he was.”

Hill told the parents “y’all can hate each other’s guts,” but that they “better act all lovey-dovey” in front of their son.

“And I better not hear either of you say anything negative about the other party or y’all gonna get a little trip to the Durham County Bed and Breakfast,” Hill added. “And there is no appeal, you stay until I say you get out. I’m talking to both of you. Is that clear?”

As Hill told the mother he had “no doubt” she had withheld her son from his father, she shook her head “no.”

“Don’t you be looking at me,” Hill responded from the bench.

“I have not withheld him,” the mother replied.

“You say one more word and you’re gonna go to the Durham County Bed and Breakfast today,” Hill said referring to the Durham jail. You say one more word ...”

And the mother interrupted with: “Uh-huh.”

As the judge told the woman he was holding her in contempt and ordering “24 hours in the Durham County Bed and Breakfast,” she interrupted.

“I never ran ...,” she said before the judge interrupted.

“All right, you got 48 hours,” he said.

Hill issued his ruling for joint custody and the mother interrupted: “Just take me in. I can’t do this. This is a disgrace.”

As the mother kept talking, Hill kept increasing the number of days he was ordering her to jail – 30 days.

A fracas followed in the courtroom and a rush of bailiffs tried to intervene.

Hill is seen on video getting up from the bench and walking out of the courtroom.

The video was widely distributed on media sites.

The Judicial Standards Commission reviewed a complaint against Hill for his behavior that day and made several findings.

It was inappropriate, the commission found, for Hill to call the jail “the Durham County Bed and Breakfast.”

Hill failed to follow applicable law when handling the disruptive behavior in the courtroom, and he did not follow proper procedure when finding the mother in contempt of court or ordering her to jail for 30 days.

Judges presiding over custody hearings are to be guided by what is in “the best interest of the child.” Calling the parents “idiots” was inappropriate, the judge acknowledged in a response to the commission.

Hill, according to the N.C. Supreme Court order, “has a good reputation in his community.” In the most recent Judicial Performance Evaluation, he received a rating of 4.19, above the average 3.56.

The behaviors during that hearing “appear to be isolated and do not form any sort of recurring pattern of misconduct,” the order issued Friday states.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1