- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Domestic violence has remained a high-priority legal topic in the decade since the passage of sweeping North Carolina laws to protect victims.

A recent Court of Appeals ruling illustrates how the laws evolve. Lawmakers swiftly addressed one part of the ruling, while domestic violence advocates hope another aspect is resolved soon to give judges ample leeway to make abusers surrender firearms.

Other domestic violence measures enacted in 2015 include one allowing development of a statewide program for electronic filing of protective order requests.

“There have been lots of modifications and additions over the years. They are definitely responsive” to domestic violence issues, said Cheryl Howell, a professor of public law and government at UNC.

House Speaker Tim Moore, who led the committee that developed the wide-ranging domestic violence law in 2004, said input from lawyers, judges and victims has helped the state develop “very robust” laws.

“It’s important that we continue to always find ways, if we need to, to improve our laws but at the end of the day, I don’t know that it’s really about changing the laws as much as it is making sure we are zealously enforcing the laws we have on the books,” he said.

North Carolina isn’t alone in its attention to the issue. Associated Press research shows more than a dozen states have passed laws in the last two years intended to make it harder for domestic abusers to possess firearms.

One provision common among those new laws - requiring many defendants under domestic violence protective orders to surrender firearms - is similar to one North Carolina enacted in 2003.

A June 2015 ruling by the Court of Appeals sheds light on how the laws are fine-tuned.

One aspect of the ruling required recording of certain hearings on urgent protective orders, which advocates argued could slow responsiveness in dangerous cases. Within weeks, the General Assembly amended state law so that recording wasn’t required.

“It was very important because it would potentially jeopardize the conclusions of courts and findings on domestic violence cases,” Moore said of the need for a swift change.

The ruling also dealt with how judges can order the surrender of a defendant’s firearms when issuing protective orders. Essentially, the question hinged on whether judges could use a “catch-all” provision giving wide leeway, or if cases have to meet criteria listed in a separate section of the statute.

The appeals court vacated an order requiring a defendant to surrender his firearms because the court failed to specify on a form which criteria the case met.

Amily McCool, legal and policy director for the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the ruling appears to give judges less flexibility and limits their “ability to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers.”

Similarly, Howell wrote on a blog that the ruling, coupled with other court decisions, appears to give less leeway. But the professor said in an interview that judges might continue using the “catch-all” until a more emphatic decision is issued.

“It’s likely that they’ll continue to use it until they’re told they can’t,” she said.

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