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A Look Inside Mecklenburg County's 'People's Court'

Deborah Pope align=left

Mecklenburg County voters today are choosing district and superior court judges who will preside over tens of thousands of cases during the next year - ranging from divorce to murder. Their decisions will alter many lives. But two-thirds of the civil cases filed in Mecklenburg County court are actually heard by judges who are not elected . . . and don't even need a law degree. WFAE's Julie Rose has this report on small claims court. Deborah Pope is a civil magistrate in Mecklenburg County. "This is the People's Court," says Pope. But don't expect the rants and grandstanding you see on TV. In real life, Pope doesn't have time for shenanigans and long lectures - every civil dispute in the county lands in small claims court. Every landlord trying to evict a deadbeat renter, every doctor's office suing a patient for unpaid bills, every Kentucky Fried Chicken customer suing because he got only two pieces in a three-piece meal (yes, Pope says that really did happen). If the dispute is for less than $5,000, it comes through Pope's courtroom, or one of three other civil magistrates. "We are a high volume business," says Pope. "There are about 44,000 cases filed in small claims court every year." Oh and they also perform weddings - often as many as 20 in a day. "If you think about it, that works out to 6 or 7 minutes per couple," says Pope. "We have to get them in, get the paperwork filled out, get 'em married, let them celebrate and exit the courtroom." It's a tough - often thankless job. Civil magistrates in North Carolina make about $40,000 on average - less than half what elected judges are paid. Civil magistrates are appointed by court officials and they don't have to be attorneys. The longest-serving civil magistrate in Mecklenburg County isn't, but Pope is. She's going on 8 years as a magistrate. "I thought that it would be interesting and I've not been disappointed," says Pope. Evictions are the most common case she handles - as many as 250 an hour. Otherwise, it's any kind of dispute you can think of, usually between people who either don't want, or can't afford, a lawyer. "A lot of them have never been in court, so their idea of courtroom decorum is what they see on TV or something like that," says Pope. "It can lead to some interesting situations." Take the husband of a woman in Pope's court last week who insisted he be allowed to testify, even though he wasn't a party in the lawsuit. Thomas Barringer is his name, and he kept interrupting and moving toward Pope's seat on the stand until finally she raised her voice, ordered him back to his seat and threatened to call security if he didn't behave himself. "It was a total let down, 100 percent bust," said Barringer in the hallway after his wife lost her case. "Maybe if we had a little more money I could buy an ounce of justice." Pope doesn't allow recording inside her courtroom. Nor does she apologize for being stern. "I have to let them know that kind of behavior is not permitted, and that there are repercussions for that kind of behavior," says Pope. "It's the only way to keep it degenerating into a circus." Especially since the county's three small claims courts share just one security officer. There's no bailiff standing next to her if things get out of hand - and they sometimes do. "For example, I had two parties fall through the courtroom door fighting with each other on their way into court," says Pope. In situations like that, when emotions run high, Pope will sometimes wait a few days before issuing her decision, to avoid igniting another outburst. When Pope's not using her stern headmistress voice, she spends as much time as she can explaining things to people: how to file the correct paper work, how to prepare for the next court date, how to appeal a decision. It's the kind of thing you rarely see in a more formal district or superior court setting. Pope only wishes she could do more of it. "When days are really crowded I feel frustrated because they walk away not knowing why they lost," says Pope with a sigh. "There's not a lot I can do about that, but there's this part of me that would like to make people happy with the decisions." Unfortunately, that hasn't happened very often during the more than 200,000 cases Pope has seen in her time as a Mecklenburg County civil magistrate. Lately she's noticed trends tied to the economic downturn: more evictions, for example; and more people suing each other over debts because they really need the money and can't afford to write off the loss. "I think behavior between parties has gotten more tense sometimes, and that is a reflection of the stresses in society too," says Pope. So if you want to know how the community's doing, just ask Pope. She has a front row seat in The People's Court.