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Monday, March 28, 2011

Would Bill Help Clean Up Domestic-Relations Courts in Alabama?

Experience has taught us that Alabama courts--at both the state and federal levels--are riddled with corruption. The worst area for misconduct, we've found, might be domestic-relations court.

We have written one post that referred to domestic-relations court in Jefferson County as a cesspool. We've seen evidence that the situation is just as bad in Shelby County. And we've written about a shadowy hunting club, where judges and lawyers from certain firms apparently gather to cook domestic-relations cases.

We soon will be writing much more about all of these topics. But for now, we have learned about a bill in the Alabama Senate that might be a sign of hope for much-needed reform in our state's divorce and child-custody courts.

Why are domestic-relations courts prone to official abuse? We think it's partly because judges have too much discretion, allowing them to rule based on whim rather than law or fact. We also think that lawyers at certain firms have figured out that domestic-relations cases, with the help of crooked judges, are an easy way to bring home money. In other words, unethical judges and lawyers feed off the suffering of men, women, and children in splintering families.

Sound ugly? That's because it is. But Alabama Senate Bill 196 proposes to change the equation. Would it make divorce courts less corrupt and more supportive of families in crisis? Supporters say the answer is yes, mainly by reducing the power of judges and lawyers and leveling the playing field for parents.

In the case of two fit parents, supporters say, the bill would require courts to address child-custody issues from a 50-50 standpoint. From SB 196:

Under existing law, there is a presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child when each parent requests it in a divorce or other proceeding involving child custody, but as a matter of practice, each parent may not share equally in the rearing of the child when joint custody of a child is ordered by a court.

This bill would state the intent of the Legislature to make Alabama law regarding child custody and support consistent with current social science data and federal welfare reform laws, to safeguard due process, equal protection, and liberty interest rights found in the U.S. Constitution and the Alabama Constitution, and to ensure that Alabama children have freedom of association with each of the two fit parents.

What about specifics? From the bill:

This bill would require a parenting plan in every case involving the custody of a child. This bill would require the plan to contain certain provisions including a designation of which parent may exercise primary authority in making childrearing decisions regarding custody of a child at designated times.

This bill would require the court to order equal parenting time with each of the two fit parents unless one or both parents is determined to be unfit, or absent a fair agreement between the parents not to adopt an equal parenting time arrangement.

This bill would require a finding by a court that a parent is unfit to be made in writing and supported by clear and convincing evidence.

Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) is sponsor of the bill, and all of the co-sponsors are white, male Republicans. Critics are likely to charge that the bill favors men over women in the custody setting. I have spoken with at least one female supporter of the bill who says it would make courts more fair for both mothers and fathers, reducing the corrupting influence of judges and lawyers.

A public hearing on SB 196 is set for 9 a.m., Wednesday (March 30) in room 609-A of the Alabama State House, which is at:

11 South Union Street
Montgomery, AL 36130

General Information: (334) 242-7800

Below is the full text of SB 196:

Alabama Senate Bill 196


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Schnauzer! It is HIGH time something was done that was truly in the best interest of Alabama families. Parents and children are being torn apart by a legal system that feeds on their suffering.

After all, human misery is a very lucrative business. Ask any domestic court attorney.

Max Shelby said...

My opinion of this bill is it's a dog.

Shared parenting (joint custody in essence) only really works when both parents are mature enough to get along and do the best thing for the children.

That's not always the case and simply because one parent has sole custody, the other parent still has every right to visitation and parenting.

The best interest of the child should always be the arbiter and joint custody, as applied by this bill, does not take each case into account. It simply makes a blanket standard.

Therein, IMHO, are its fleas.

Proving a parent unfit is an almost impossible bar to meet that leaves a lot of room for psychological and sometimes physical damage trying to get there.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

NO to this bill!

Anonymous said...

This bill is absolutely wrong for families. It aims to drive a wedge between parents who disagree, and the children will suffer for it every year as parents flip-flop over who gets to make decisions. If you feel there's a problem with corrupt judges and lawyers, then get the evidence you need and have them crushed in criminal court. Forcing judges to make a determination of "unfit" in order to favor one parent over another is ludicrous, and will jam up the courts with appeals. Divorces are ugly and complex. Trying to attach a cookie-cutter law as a fix is irresponsible, and will only bog down an already overloaded court system. Based on Senator Bussman's biography, it seems he may have an axe to grind based on his two older children (27 and 23) whom he obviously didn't have with his current wife of 13 years.

Anonymous said...

"Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Judicial Administration shall apply with the following exceptions:

"(1) Health insurance provided the child shall not be less than the best insurance available to either parent.

"(2) Family health insurance premiums due to be paid by either parent shall not be in excess of the incremental premium amounts based on the number of children of the biological parent.

"(3) Any support paid or material items given directly to a parent or child for the direct benefit of the child, with written proof of same, shall be considered same as support and maintenance for sole benefit of the child."

SO, does #3 mean that as long as a parent has a receipt, the cost of (for instance) a 60 inch flat screen TV given to either the parent or perhaps to a 5 yr old will be deducted from the child support payments to the OTHER parent???

Unless #3 is written in more detail, I can see all sorts of abuse down the road, caused by angry parents who are more interested in hurting each other than seeing to the welfare of the children!

Anonymous said...

This bill is so adamantly opposed by the judges and attorneys, it must be good for the children and the parents. Adversity breeds contempt,thereby causing more contempt, which only helps the scavenger attorneys.
Acrimonious divorces are never delightful. The kids are so often used as pawns. Whoever gains custody is the grand prize winner, but here is an opportunity to force the parents to do what's right for the children.
This proposed piece of legislation may not be perfect, but it will suffice until something better comes along.

Anonymous said...

Washington State has done a very good job navigating a very similar law passed there in the 1990s.

Only in a domestic court situation do the parties not start out as equals. The fact that the court starts out with the presumption that children are better off with the mother violates the father's right to due process.

The cronyism in domestic courts is also a problem. It doesn't matter how good your attorney is. All that matters is whose attorney has the best relationship with the judge.

I guess those that oppose the bill have never had the misfortune of battling for custody.

Anonymous said...

It's about time we had some good legislation regarding child custody. At best, judges are fortune tellers. Typically they are lazy bums rushing cases through and ensuring the continuation of processes that make lawyers rich, judges empowered, families poor and children fatherless. 50/50 custody ensures kids have both parents and encourage cooperation between parents before and after the decree.

Thank you Senator Bussman, Senator Holtzclaw, etc.!

Anonymous said...

Many people opposing likely never actually went through a divorce. I think this bill is GREAT. Alabama is long-overdue for updates for domestic-relations courts. There are some things in the bill that need to be reconsidered and will likely be changed should the bill reach it's final form, such as the provision about items counting as child support. I agree that because this bill is so adamantly opposed by the judges and attorneys, it must be good for the children and the parents.

Anonymous said...

This is great legislation! More states to get onboard. To address a few comments:

“Shared parenting (joint custody in essence) only really works when both parents are mature enough to get along and do the best thing for the children.”

True, but why should children be denied access to one parent when the other has an ax to grind? Fathers are basically given every other weekend and told to live with it. Most people do not understand the differences between shared parenting, joint custody, and equal legal and physical custody.

SHARED PARENTING: Though parents may share, it may only be a 90/10 or 80/20 share. One parent is given SOLE leagal custody and all the decision making authority?

JOINT CUSTODY: Often interchanged with shared parenting but usually denote 50/50 time share. Once again, the legal rights are often left with one parent. You have no legal right to represent your child.

EQUAL LEGAL AND PHYSICAL CUSTODY: Best way to go! You have the same rights you had when you were still married; legal decision making and equal time. You can modify the time and decision making just as you would if you were still married. Will it cause conflict? Of course… but no more then any other relationship. Like it or not, even divorced, you are going to have a relationship with your ex… make the best of it or give all you money to and attorney!

I once asked my daughter if she missed me after spend 12 days with mom and 2 days with me. She said, Yes! But I got use to it. What a pathetic statement of the current system! I still haven’t gotten use to my kids not being around!

“…this bill, does not take each case into account.”

The bill and other existing legislation does take every case into account. What this bill does is set a constitutionally compliant standard as a starting point and will eliminate much of the “positioning” for power and control. If both parents KNOW they will have EQUAL, there will be less conflict. The parent who creates problems could loose custody as a matter of fitness is addressed.

“This bill is absolutely wrong for families. It aims to drive a wedge between parents who disagree, and the children will suffer for it every year as parents flip-flop over who gets to make decisions.”

Parents already have a wedge or hey wouldn’t be getting a divorce! Entering into a “battle of attrition” in court only makes it worse. Who wins a war? The guy selling weapons! (Judges, lawyers, psychologists, etc.) Take away the struggle for power… less conflict!

“Washington State has done a very good job navigating a very similar law passed there in the 1990s.”

I haven’t seen their statute but I will have to look at it. I believe Alabama is the second state to move for “equal legal and physical custody” in their statutes. Ohio had a bill in 2003 but they killed it in committee. Long story there! Alabama is on the right path!

“The kids are so often used as pawns.”

See the comment on “war” above.

In summary… the benefits to your children will far exceed the speculative problems some fear. It can’t be worse then the current system!

Michael A. Galluzzo, President/Co-founder
National Organization for Parental Equality

Anonymous said...

From a lawyer with over 30 years experience in the field.
I have carefully read the bill and can say there is not a single concept that is workable. While it pretends to have the children's best interests at heart, it only seeks to give an advantage to a small group of parents who were unable to convince a judge through the introduction of evidence at trial that a joint custody arrangement is workable, or that the two parents, who are divorcing because they cannot get along, will somehow post-divorce be able to jointly make all future decisions for their children. The bill begins with a number of false assumptions and false statements of Constitutional law. And come on, Schnauzer, please don't accuse all domestic relations judges and lawyers across the state of some complicity because of what you perceive to be a problem in one or two counties, Doesn't matter if they are populous counties; your indictment of a system of justice is unfair unless you have practiced throughtout the state and dealt with the many fine, hard-working, dedicated, and fair judges who hear these difficult cases. It also is worth noting that the vast majority of divorce cases are settled, and not subject to some mischief by judges or lawyers at trial. Joint custody is a good idea if the parents can work together. Substantial time with both parents also is a good idea as often as it can be achieved. Letting both parents always have half the decision-making power is just a parent wanting power rather than thinking about what is in the child's best interests. As one example of a bad provision, the bill says if the parents cannot agree on decisions, then one parent gets odd-numbered years and the other even-numbered years, irrespective of how much time the child actually spends with each parent. Any thinking adult who has counseled or represented parties in divorce can see how this injures rather than helps children in their development and stability.

Anonymous said...

One commenter suggests that Washington state has a successful statute in place. While Googling to find what they do in Washington, I came upon this interesting website which challenges the social science claims of the proponents of bills such as SB196.


I cannot verify the claims of the site, but for anyone interested in forming their opinion based on science, not personal bias, the articles mentioned may give a starting point.

BTW, I could not find where WA had indeed passed such a law.

Steven Kneussle said...

This bill is great! It puts both parents on equal footing and prevents children from being used as pawns in a divorce. Psychologists like Gould and Ackerman advocate that shared parenting is in the best interests of the children.

Maybe this is why the legislated Alabama Family Law Task Force refused to allow Dr. Gould to present before the Committee. They initially agreed, but after arrangements were made, the BAR association pressured the Chairman to prevent Gould from presenting. I wonder what they were scared to hear!

The BAR Association is so opposed to this bill that they singled out 3 fathers who attended the Senate Hearing and sent information back to their opposing counsel.

Most people don't realize that we the tax payers spend $1 BILLION every two years to pay the State to process child support payments. Most of this money goes to attorneys. This money was appropriated to only apply in cases where there was an absent parent or where the custodial parent was receiving public assistance. The State receives money based on how much child support they collect, so they included most everyone to maximize the federal funding. The program is called Title IV-D.

Its all about the money and how much of it the attorneys can get!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Legal Schnauzer, for writing this article/blog on this bill. This bill is founded on the U.S. Constitution and you can't find but very few Alabama lawyers to even discuss the U.S. Constitution.

Equality under the law.

Anyone who opposes a starting point of equality fails to appreciate their own rights under the law. It should the highest burden to be met to strip away the rights of a fit parent from their child, or more accurately, robbing a child of one or both of their fit parents. Mom's are being robbed of this too, just in smaller percentage. Regardless of the stats, it is wrong and not best for the child.

There is no way you will convince a fit parent that a judge, lawyer, or GAL can make a better decision on how to raise their children than the fit parent.

The Supreme Court of the US has ruled that the "state (judge) must defer to the fit parents".

Alabama law, judges, and lawyers, are violating the civil rights of the fit parents and their children.

Ala history has shown that the only way to get Ala to protect its citizens rights is through a Federal Lawsuit in which Alabama has to be ordered to do so.

Anonymous said...

Here was the opposition to the bill that spoke in the public hearing. The judges and lawyers all said it was horrible and stated their discretion must not betaken away from them. They also admitted, believe it or not, that the current system is broke but offer zero recommendations on how to make it better. Their "non-suggestion" is to keep things the same.

The Domestic Violence (DV) folks said all men getting divorced were abusers. Seriously that was their message. GO to www.ACADV.org and find ONE word not about men beating their women. They believe this bill will "deliver the child into the hands of an abuser". There 11 speakers total against the bill and 10 speakers in support of it.

Judge Julie Palmer - SHELBY COUNTY
Brad Green or Graham - Lawyer/GAL from SHELBY COUNTY
Rachel King - lawyer/GAL - SHELBY COUNTY
Joshua James - lawyer/GAL-MONTGOMERY
Juliana Taylor - lawyer-MONTGOMERY
Kelli McDaniel - lawyer/GAL - MONTGOMERY
Lindsey Davis - lawyer/FLORENCE

American Coalition Against Domestic Violence www.ACADV.org:
Carol Gunlach
Barbara Manning
Katie O'Malley (mom speaking of her own personal DV issue)

Bea said...

Back in 2009 my husband and I filed for a divorce and agreed to joint physical and legal custody of our then 5 year old daughter. My ex-husband was a stable man with a job, a home and no history of drug abuse or any issues whatsoever. We filed our case in The Circuit Court of Mobile County and the Judge assigned to our case, Judge Rosemary Chambers denied our request for joint custody six times stating that I, the mother should have full custody with my ex-husband receiving every other weekend visitation only. She NEVER gave any more of a logical reasoning with only that same statement each time we were rejected. We could not understand her logic or how she could possibly believe that our child seeing her father every other weekend was in her best interest, so with our best efforts, agreeing to a change in venue, we removed our case to Baldwin County which did agree and awarded Joint Custody for her best interest. This can only be done if both parties agree. My daughter is now almost eight years old. She is a straight A student and spends two days with me and two days with her father. She is very healthy and very happy and has adjusted quite resiliently to the changes for what is truly in her best interest.

Now on the other foot, again in the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama and again in front of Judge Rosemary Chambers, my current husband fights to have rights to his children. He and his wife filed for divorce and he was awarded every other weekend. She was 8 months pregnant by another man when they went to court and the Judge didn’t even care. Judge Chambers awarded the mother full custody. The mother does not allow him to see his children at any other times other than what is stated in the paper. She uses them as a bargaining tool to get what she wants. Her attorney and the Judge are best friends and do whatever they choose to do without regards to the fact that the children are ultimately suffering long term by not being allowed to have their father’s influence (two boys). The mother has on numerous occasions denied him visitation rights and never found in contempt. She was found guilty of domestic violence charges on us recently and when we asked the courts to modify their visitation schedule to keep contact with her minimal by picking them up from daycare as opposed to the mothers house, the judge reduced his visitation. I cannot understand how anyone would think it is in the best interest of any child to not have both their parents in their lives (if suitable) full-time and jointly. We have been fighting this losing battle while every time that we go to court and lose, his ex-wife tells everyone that she “won” everything, yet what she doesn’t understand is that her children are ultimately losing and she doesn’t even care, so long as she is winning. If winning means your children losing, than koodos to you. Judges have too much discretion. As you can see I have been on both sides of the fence and I believe in what is in “the best interest” of any child is to have both parents actively and jointly.

Bea said...

My ex-husband and I do not always agree, but the one thing that we are able to do is to agree to disagree and to agree that it doesn’t matter what we want, but what is best for our little girl and having BOTH of her parents JOINTLY in her life, to influence her and to love her, is what is in her best interest. Many people are incapable of doing this and most judges presume the mother is the better caretaker and disregard that both parents are needed to raise a child, yet they require the non-custodial (usually the father) parent to contribute equally financially.

There are so many men who want to be fathers and who are not allowed to be, due to the vindictiveness of mothers who do not put the need of the children ahead of their own and the courts who won’t enforce equal time. So many women state that men have an obligation to support their children equally, yet they do not want to allow them to be apart of their lives equally which is truly in the childs best interest and how our justice system is allowing this is beyond me. A judge choosing women over men is unconstitutional and it’s part of the reason that so many children grow up without their fathers. There are so many men who don’t care about their children and for the ones that do care, they are punished and the children are being punished and not being afforded equal time and love from both parents. I grew up without my father, because he didn’t want to be a part of my life. It affected me so very much, but it taught me to put my daughter’s needs above my own. We can’t make men want their children, but why are we punishing the ones that do want to be a part of their childrens’ lives? Why are judges over-looking what is in the child’s best interest? Allowing one parent complete control is “NOT” in the “best interest” of any child and is actually selfish.

I am so thankful that Baldwin County has taken this approach and I can only hope this bill will push counties such as Mobile in the right direction. To take out the so called “discretion” of judges, which is just a “good ole boy” system at work. For anyone who disagrees with children having both parents, I would say that they are not looking out for the best interest of their children, but obviously their own. I would tell them it took two to make them and it takes to two raise them and that cannot be done without equal rights

From what I have read of this bill, it would allow us to seek another modification for equal time with his children, if I am incorrect, this should be an issue that needs addressing.

Bea said...

Seriously? It drives a wedge? What wedge is greater than one person have all the control of what is best for a child it took two to create and two to support financially? Really? You must be a selfish person! (from a woman wh loves and adores her child more than anything one on this earth)!

Bea said...

and if you have ever been in the system then you would know that corruption outweighs "any" evidence you may have, just ask me, been there, done that and more than once!!! what about equal rights? what about what is truly best for the children?

Anonymous said...

Legal Schnauzer: need to correct one part of earlier post. Judge Julie Palmer is from Jefferson County, not Shelby County.

Rob said...

I found this on Facebook:

Current Law Has Wrong Incentives: Without SB196, there is “moral hazard” – once one parent is given dominant control, that person has little incentive to listen to the non-custodial spouse’s suggestions, effectively denying a child the wisdom of two parents. Try running on one leg.

Fiscal responsibility: We the people could save a lot of money by reducing court conflicts with an efficient, effective law like SB196. Imagine how much it would cost taxpayers if each time someone was caught speeding, the court apparatus had to decide how to interpret “it depends on what you mean by speeding”. The parallel in this determining “the best interests of the child” when both parents are quite capable.

Breaking it down, there are 1) taxpayer costs from court time and support; 2) legal fees spent sorting out issues, appealing, and endless filings; and 3) looking long-term pragmatically, children with an absent parent are likely to have emotional and delinquency problems later in life. “Why doesn’t mommy (daddy) love me? She(he)’s never around.” The costs of emotional distress and delinquency to “society” (that’s us) would start with 1) dampened earning power; 2) reducing Alabama’s tax revenues, and 3) putting higher demands on corrections services. Supporting SB196 increases the odds that a mentally healthy child will become a productive adult. However, the cost of defeating 196 is substantial: more government spending and limited benefits to a few.

Rob said...

Libertarian Grounds for SB196 (from Facebook)

Big brother makes an awful parent. Spending taxpayer money for private disputes is uncomfortable. The greater issue is relying on government to closely manage individual lives. Shouldn’t government be limited to handling exceptional cases? And instead, have faith in the creative energy of individuals? Does government have that much extra money these days?

It is sinister when the government prods its fingers in affairs that “fit” citizens can handle better and more lovingly. Anyone uncomfortable with too much government might be uncomfortable with judges determining “best interests of the child” after a brief hearing, pressed by other business and tee off times. SB196 reduces this cost.

One might point out that big government rarely accomplishes things efficiently and effectively: except during crises and war (and even then, not efficiently). Good people do work for the government; but the establishment has little incentive to do anything but gain more control over lives, ensuring job security and good benefits for its employees. Of course, we need some government, but we should be very selective when we allow government into our lives.

Judicial and legislative shenanigans and financial “influence” mock our fragile faith that government could accomplish any good – SB196 would reduce the opportunities for corruption.

In the preponderance of cases where the people can do a better job, why not let them? And save the money.

Anonymous said...

If you want to meet a CORRUPT and BIAS judge, then please let me have the distasteful displeasure of introducing you to the name JUDGE ROSEMARY CHAMBERS - Mobile County Circuit Court! It's not just a certain county in Alabama, it is most every county in Alabama, although, I have had some luck with Baldwin County being equal.

Anonymous said...

Reading of the comments about how people have been lawyers for 30 years or how it requires that parents get along with each other sounds UNEDUCATED. So many people want to talk about things to which they do not really have all of the facts. No one ask for your opinion. WE only want what is best for the children and having BOTH your FIT parents EQUALLY is what is best, just as it was when the two parents were married to each other. Adults divorce, this doesn't mean the children should have to divorce their father (or other parent, usually the father) too! (by the way, I am woman and I believe in equal rights because that is the ONLY thing that is in the BEST INTEREST of a child. If you can't get along then get over it! IT's NOT about the parents, it's about children having equal time with BOTH parents!

Kristen Viikinsalo said...

This bill is BAD!!!! It will wind up being a simple"go to" decision that allows judges to rubber stamp custody cases without REALLY looking into the evidence of who is truly the better parent. I was just in a divorce trial myself and was given 50/50 legal and physical custody. We had an extremely high conflict divorce..... Yet now we are supposed to confer on everything and come to an agreement??? Yeah, like THAT'S Gonna happen! ...and guess who's hurting the most..... I was a stay at home mom my child's whole life.... Now she is with a father 1/2 the month whio is abusive and a narcissist.... Had the evidence been more closely looked at, anyone would have seen that this arrangement would NEVER work....now my child is stuck until we can rev up the modification engine and start ALL over again.... For the kids? Yeah, sure... Ok