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