Trials & Litigation

Elected court clerk says she was wrongly ousted over 'unintentional rear-end dial'

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An elected court clerk in Franklin County, North Carolina, is appealing her ouster from office following what her lawyer calls “an unintentional rear-end dial.”

Patricia Burnette Chastain alleges that her conduct doesn’t rise to the level of the kind of egregious misconduct, corruption and malpractice that warrants removal, Law360 reports.

Judge Thomas Lock of Johnston County, North Carolina, had ordered Chastain’s removal in response to a petition by a local attorney. Oral arguments in the appeal were Feb. 8.

The phone call incident happened in June 2020. Several citizens had come to Chastain because they were upset about being unable to reach a magistrate on duty that evening, according to Chastain’s brief. While she was with the concerned citizens, Chastain called Chief Magistrate James Arnold while he was out picking up food in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Chastain asked Arnold to send a magistrate to the office and told him that better coverage was needed, according to the brief. Arnold replied that he would not send a magistrate unless he could speak directly to one of the local citizens. Chastain did not want to hand over her personal cellphone. Arnold told Chastain that if she had complaints, she could call his supervisor, Chief District Judge John Davis.

“Seconds later, Ms. Chastain accidentally and unknowingly dialed Mr. Arnold back and he could hear voices on the line,” Chastain’s brief said.

According to Arnold, Chastain said one of three possible phrases: “F- - -, I’m not calling John Davis,” “F- - - John Davis” or “I don’t give a f- - - about John Davis.”

Chastain’s lawyer, Matthew Ballew, argued that saying the F-word in the same sentence as a judge’s name isn’t grounds for removal, according to Law360.

The lawyer who sought Chastain’s removal, Kip Nelson, argued that Chastain’s intent was more important than her words, according to Law360. Chastain made the first call “with the intent to undermine the public’s respect for Judge Davis and Mr. Arnold and for their judicial authority,” Nelson said. “I would say that could constitute willful misconduct that’s egregious in nature.”

Chastain was also accused of:

    • Visiting the homes of feuding neighbors in an attempt to mediate their dispute. There was no case pending before the clerk’s office at the time, although the feud had spurred multiple court filings and calls to police.

    • Handing out coupons for free smoothies at a new business close to the courthouse to judges, lawyers, staff members and the jury venire. She was advised not to give potential jurors anything of value in the future.

    • Introducing a local lawyer who was a judicial candidate to the jury pool.

    • Going to the jail after a preliminary hearing to visit the suspect and fill out the required affidavit of indigency. The counsel had already been appointed for the suspect, but Chastain was not aware of that, her brief asserted.

    • Being the subject of improvement recommendations in an audit report that focused on employee training and increased oversight.

Chastain’s brief argued that the trial judge wrongly found that Chastain’s isolated actions were sufficient for removal.

“Here, the trial court took isolated events—each separated by substantial time, place and actors and with no evidence that any of these instances were ever knowingly repeated by Ms. Chastain—and conflated them to erroneously conclude she engaged in ‘knowing and persistently repeated conduct’ constituting the highest bar for removal of corruption or malpractice,” the brief said.

It’s the second time that Chastain’s case has reached a state appeals court. The first time, the appeals court said the trial judge who ousted Chastain had wrongly considered evidence outside the charging affidavit.

Lock ruled on remand in April 2022 that the charged actions were sufficient for removal.

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