Divorce court — sometimes called domestic court or family court — has probably seen the most changes during the last quarter of the 20th century. In the late 1970s, the idea that there might be some other partner waiting in the wings for the divorce to become final was very hush-hush. In custody matters, it was taboo to co-habitate with someone other than the spouse, and if a father or mother wanted to see their children for visitation, it would be necessary for the third party to be scarce for the visitation period of time.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was acceptable to have a third party around or even co-habitate, as long as the children were not subjected to inappropriate actions.
Domestic court definitely reflected the changing morals of the country by the time the mid- to late-90s rolled around. One of our first cases on our last rotation through this bastion of raw emotions involved temporary orders (those to be in place during the pendency of the action), and whether it was appropriate for a sixyear- old to visit his father who had left his mother to move in with another man and for the boy to stay overnight in a one-bedroom apartment with the two men. The father saw absolutely nothing wrong with the arrangement and wanted to indoctrinate the boy into his new lifestyle.
There are fringe players involved in family court. These include child custody investigators, social workers, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Each time I spent a rotation in domestic, I would marvel at what the psychobabble of the day was. Our last watch involved mostly people who were thought to be bipolar.
One of our early cases in domestic court in Denver involved a couple who had married after their spouses of the first three quarters of their lives had passed on. The wife was 78 and the husband was 79 when the dissolution hearing took place. They had been married about five years earlier. It was important to the husband that he was seen as being cooperative by the court.
Q. Are you married to the petitioner?
A. Yeah, we had a pretty wild life, but she wants to get divorced, so that’s fine with me. Whatever she wants. We had a wild time, though.
Q. Do you understand you have a right to request maintenance in this case?
A. Yeah. I’ll be glad to mow the lawn and take care of the place. Anything you want me to do in the house, I’ll be glad to do it.
Q. And the maintenance I’m referring to is what we used to call alimony?
Q. And that’s what I’m asking about is alimony?
A. Yeah. Anything she wants is fine. I’ll mow it every week. Do whatever she needs.
Q. All right, but as far as alimony or maintenance, you understand that you can’t come back at a later date and ask for it?
A. Yeah. We want to be good friends. She’s a wonderful, wonderful woman. We belong to the same church.
MS. WALSH: Great. I have no further questions, Your Honor.
THE COURT: All right. You may step down.
When the husband stepped down from the witness stand, he walked over to his soon-to-be-ex-wife and shook and kissed her hand. It really was a lovely gesture.
Little problems and their resolution can take on a whole new importance in divorce court. For instance, when we moved to Courtroom 21, the previous staff took their water pitchers for counsel tables and the witness stand. Not thinking much of it, we simply ordered a new set. The water pitchers that were delivered had very strange lids that simply popped open when a certain angle was reached. Gravity, maybe? In any event, we were in a hearing right after the pitchers were delivered. The bailiff filled them with water and promptly put them in their places. None of us had tried the pitchers ourselves, so we had no idea that if anyone tipped the pitcher just a millimeter too far, the entire contents of the vessel would rush out. Of course, it wasn’t something that should be humorous, to see a slick divorce attorney, who was callously cross-examining the other party in the case with no mercy, pick up a cup and the pitcher and start to pour himself some water at a tense moment, only to be totally drenched a moment later. It shouldn’t be humorous, but it was.
We really were mortified and promptly put a note on the top of the lids urging caution.
While this seemed to help some people, others seemed to read the note — which absolutely couldn’t be missed — and promptly did that which was warned against.
Our next step was to take the lids off in the hope that people would be more careful. That solution was quickly nixed when a large fly landed in the pitcher by the witness stand in the middle of testimony.
Finally, the pitchers were emptied and put on the top of a cabinet in the rear of the courtroom. We had ordered a set of a different kind of pitcher, but what had taken only a day or two to receive the week before, now took two weeks. To our horror, we entered the courtroom after taking the docket call to begin the first hearing and the water pitchers has mysteriously reappeared on the counsel tables. We launched right into the case, so nothing was said at that point, but it wasn’t long before water was dripping off petitioner’s counsel table and petitioner’s attorney was running around the table trying to keep the exhibits dry.
Well, at the next recess we moved the pitchers into the conference room and placed them on the top shelf of the coat rack. No one should be able to get them from there.
It was hit-and-miss water-wise for the next days until the new set of pitchers arrived.
These, however, had lids on them that did not flip open, they unscrewed somehow and nobody, but nobody could open them unless that was the only thing they were doing at the time because of the concentration level necessary to open the lid and pour the water. Even at that, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of water soaking our carpet.
Needless to say, the judge was becoming very irritated by something that shouldn’t have been difficult to resolve. As our staff discussed the matter of saving our jobs and a plausible solution to the problem, we set about visiting other courtrooms in the building to see what water pitchers were being used. Glory be, we found a set of the old standbys in our previous quarters in the jury room, obviously neglected and to be relegated to the water pitcher pitch pile. We grabbed them and safely installed them as fixtures of our courtroom. What a relief! Problem solved, even though the outdated water pitchers weren’t quite as pretty. To tell you the truth, we missed the comic diversion the other pitchers had caused, but then again, the judge was much happier.
Paying support in domestic cases, whether it be maintenance or child support, always seems to be a sticking point. In Wichita, we had what we called “Father’s Day” every Friday afternoon. The docket was composed entirely of cases involving de – linquent child support or other contempt matters. The judge always chose a particularly bad case to call up first, one where jail time was a distinct possibility. Once a case of that nature was completed with the respondent on the way to jail, it was amazing how many of the others waiting would approach the district attorney to settle their cases.
One day we had a man in on a contempt for nonpayment of child support who had been eating his Wheaties. He was representing himself and kept telling the judge that he simply couldn’t pay his support obligation because he had all of his other bills and his truck payment to pay. When the judge took no pity upon him and sentenced him to 60 days, he flew into a rage.
Now, all judges have what we call “panic buttons” close to them on the bench where they can call silently for sheriffs and other officers to assist if things get out of hand. As this very large man began to scream and throw things around in the courtroom, the judge hit his panic button. The judge was calmly advising the man that he should take a seat in the jury box and the sheriff would be in shortly to escort him to jail. All the while, the judge was pushing the button over and over again.
I turned to him and asked if I should see what was taking so long. He replied in the affirmative and I got up from my chair to leave the courtroom. As I did, the sleeve of my blouse caught on the sheet metal basket where the court files were kept for the day’s hearings. The sleeve ripped all the way to the wrist!
I ran to our chambers to see what the delay was and couldn’t find anyone anywhere.
When I returned to the courtroom, a lawyer about half the size of the respondent had the large man up against the wall in the courtroom saying, “You’re not helping yourself, son. This isn’t going to help your case. Just calm down and see what happens.” About that time, the sheriffs finally arrived and took the man into custody.
Now, my fiancé was a judicial services officer (deputy sheriff) at that time and the information that reached him was there had been an incident in my courtroom and my blouse had been torn off in the scuffle. Well, you can imagine how that made for an unhappy handling of the respondent when he arrived in the jail. He never did cooperate but, eventually, paid the amount of bond which would catch up his child support and we didn’t see him again <;-> at least on our domestic watch. As for the attorney that saved the day, he was somewhat of a hero for the rest of the afternoon.
Wichita didn’t have the exclusive on problems in domestic courtrooms. In our first tour of duty in family court in Denver, we had a gentleman in for contempt for nonpayment of support. Now, in Denver, many of the courtrooms are equipped with large, heavy wood tables that have glass on top to protect the wood (from spills mostly from water pitchers). In any event, the judge told this respondent that he would have to pay a certain amount of support, regardless of his employment situation as it then existed. A recess was called and the judge left the courtroom with the clerk.
The respondent rose slowly to his feet, made a fist, and slammed it down on the glass table top yelling, “I’m not going to pay it!” He hit the table so hard that the glass shattered. The act itself seemed to calm the respondent. The sheriff was called and the respondent was ticketed for destruction of court property, to add to his other humiliation. Hard to believe he did not break his hand. The table itself was not damaged, but replacing the glass set the respondent back a hundred bucks!
Some domestic cases are just downright uncomfortable for everyone involved. There was a case assigned to us in Denver that involved a couple who were divorcing. The reason for their incompatibility was the wife’s sister, who was planning to marry the husband as soon as the divorce was final. Well, you can imagine the line of witnesses who testified about the terrible wrong this man was doing to the family. Most of the scorn was not heaped upon the sister until later in the hearing. The kicker was that there were three sisters in the family and all of them were models. All of their friends who testified were models, too. Rest assured, we had never seen so much eyeliner and hairspray in our courtroom ever before! You can probably guess that the whole affair dissolved into a cat fight in the hall. We were glad we weren’t joining that family for Thanksgiving dinner.
Another not-so-pretty sight was the case where two attorneys were calling it quits from their ten-year marriage. The husband was completely out of money so decided to represent himself. The wife had parents who were so glad their daughter was getting rid of that good-for-nothing that they paid for her lawyer. Of course, the financial situation of these two was the worst, absolute worst we had ever seen. It wasn’t a matter of who would get the assets; it was a matter of who would get stuck with the most debt.
A lawyer representing himself in a case in which he is so emotionally involved is a big mistake. Even worse, this case had so many documents to establish the couple’s bills that the case went on and on and on. You know, there were times when the aforementioned water pitchers really would have come in handy!
Finally, it was over. The name calling ceased — at least between the husband and his father-in-law. The debt got divided mostly down the middle and the wife got to keep the dog.
Judge thought about removing the dog from both of them, they were such maladjusted people, but acquiesced and let the wife have it. Poor Bowser!
Then there was the case of the surgeon and the homemaker-turned-real-estatemogul and their very contentious divorce. Besides wrangling over the money and the property in Denver and Aspen were the accusations that each was an unfit parent. The tension became almost unbearable and we were more than happy to recess for the day. The wife retired to the fourth floor restroom and promptly went into an epileptic seizure. Is there a doctor in the house? Sure is. The husband ran into the restroom to help his soon-to-be-ex-wife. We were grateful he was there.
The wealthy get down and dirty in their divorce cases like anybody else, but there are some unusual twists. One of the premiere real estate developers in Denver landed in our court back in the early 1990s for a very messy divorce. Many, many years later, an article in the newspaper stated the malpractice case was finally settled that the wife had brought against her attorneys. The result of the matter was almost what had been outlined when the petition was filed, before all the millions of dollars in attorney fees and contempt hearings and related matters.
The wrinkle here was the doll house. Evidently, there was a piece of property involved in the dispute that was a condominium. No one lived in the condo, but the husband was a collector of dolls. The dolls lived in the condo, and their happy home simply could not be disturbed, could it? Strange, but after the husband bought an island off the coast of Ireland to retreat to and began sneaking in and out of the country disguised in women’s clothes, the dolls were all but lost in the shuffle.
The Tissue Case has to be the strangest domestic matter on our last rotation. This was the case of an unwed mother who was sued by her parents for custody of her mixed-race child. The parents were staunch conservatives who disapproved of the relationships their daughter had with “men of color.” Eventually, the daughter became pregnant and had a baby. The daughter was the quintessential spoiled brat. She had been given every luxury and advantage while growing up in her parents’ home. Her parents, on the other hand, had been quite closed-minded when it came to people outside of their own race and circumstances.
The attorney who took on the mother’s case knew that his client had no money to pay him but did see dollar signs for payment of his fee by the grandparents. The case was another one of those that went on and on with much mud slinging and barbs thrown in abundance. It truly was tragic.
Now, the mother cried through most of the hearing. This was not just a cry, but a dramatic cry! She always had to have a tissue at her disposal. It was reminiscent of Red Skelton and his handkerchief incessantly flailing about. You must understand that the staff was responsible to supply tissues if they wanted to have them around in the courtroom. When we began our year in this particular division, we purchased the largest multipack of tissues we could find, expecting it to last the whole year. Well, this mother was going to see to it single-handedly that that never happened!
Every time this case came up for hearing, the mother would promptly swipe the tissue box from the witness stand. The case itself was extremely sad, just from the circumstances, but this mother and her need for tissues to secure dramatic affect was hysterical. We tried everything to save our tissues from this woman. We put the tissues down out of sight on the witness stand so they wouldn’t be spotted the moment she hit the door. We substituted really cheap, rough tissues. She just used more! One day, we even put them on the file cabinet just outside the door into chambers. Well, that went over like a lead balloon and became the subject of a protracted colloquy between Court and Counsel. Soon, we gave up altogether and watched tissue after tissue after tissue after tissue disappear. Where did those water pitchers go?
In Wichita we had default days in domestic court, usually Monday and Friday mornings, where those with uncontested matters were encouraged to come and not have to wait very long to have their cases heard. Usually one party would testify to verify the facts necessary to grant the divorce. The hearing would end when the Court issued its orders. These were short hearings, probably lasting five to seven minutes, and sometimes there would be only a few. There were days, however, when we would have fifteen to twenty. Our all-time record was twenty-three in one day.
I once told Judge Foulston, who was my judge at that time, that there was a part of his standard order where my mind would simply click off and it was a struggle for me to write down on my machine the rest of what he was saying. Of course, he was always saying the same thing at that point, but I would tell him I might write “on and on” and know what it was. Somehow that worked into a race where I would not only try to actually write what he was saying, but I would try to beat him to the end. He would talk as fast as he could and I would write as fast as I could, and we would try to end at the same time. If he really wanted to get my goat, he would alter his standard order by a word or two, which really was irritating because it caused a break in my racing concentration. My Type A reporting mind and personality would not let me write something like that incorrectly. To this day, his words jump into my head out of the blue:
The parties shall be prohibited from remarriage until 30 days from the date of the entry of the decree or 30 days from the receipt of the mandate from the appellate court.
Domestic cases, family court, involve the most raw form of emotion. While it is true that court reporters see people when they are in their most difficult circumstances, cases with children are the hardest. We develop these defense mechanisms to deal with domestic cases not out of a sense of harshness or uncaring, but because, otherwise, we might care too much.