Why shouldn’t we allow divorce records to be sealed? Since when is the public’s right to know more important than a couple’s right to keep private the division of their assets and the whereabouts of their children. Married people need not publicly disclose how they share assets or time with their children. So why must divorcing couples be subject to public scrutiny of their most personal dealings?
This has always seemed odd to me. In Georgia a few years ago, much was made of the Speaker of the House’s divorce being sealed (click for wikipedia info). But I think the outcry was not so much about his case being sealed, but more about why was his case sealed, when many others weren’t. The answer should have been: “Let’s seal them all”. Instead, the opinion of the majority seemed to be: “no special treatment for him”.
Currently, as reported by the Washington Post, the Montana Supreme Court is considering restricting public access to such records (click for story). As a family law attorney, I think the potential benefits are tremendous. Why should information about where children are being dropped off be public? What about agreements to sell property for a certain price? It may take a philosphical shift about court records, but family law is different. The parties, if they have children, will continue to interact and be somewhat interdependent on each other after the divorce. Why allow more roadblocks, like allowing outsiders to know their private business, to make their life any harder than it already will be?
The saying “When God closes a door, he opens a window” can sometimes be very appropriate in family law settings. Sandra Bullock’s situation is a prime example. While a door was closed for her (divorce with ugly allegations that her husband Jesse James cheated), perhaps a more important window was opened, the adoption of a baby boy (Washington Post story can be viewed by clicking here). Her love for her child is so apparent that it is clear that perhaps she was freed of a bad marriage to make time for a person who she could love even more and who could return the love equally and unequivocally.
In our experience as divorce lawyers, we are often fortunate enough to see clients after the divorce has passed. While some struggle for years, many, if not most, move on and find happiness that they may not otherwise have found. That is one of the most gratifying parts of our job. Since the future is never certain, and is almost always frightening for anyone going through a divorce, the ability to watch people go through it and survive and succeed is an awe inspiring experience. Almost everyone who goes through a divorce, never ever dreamed of the possibilty of a separation or divorce. Then, to accept the failure of their marriage, a project they worked on, planned and tried their very best to make work, is always difficult. And much more so when children are involved. Yet inevitably life moves forward. New relationships are formed, different connections are made, and life goes on.
The bottom line is that change is inevitable and when it is as significant as a divorce, everything changes. But as human beings we strive to improve our circumstances, no matter what is thrown at us. And guess what, many people succeed in that. No, not everyone moves on and is better off for divorce. Money is tighter, logistical difficulties preventing non-custodial parents from seeing their kids arise, but we learn to cope with these issues. Of course there are times when the path of divorce was too quickly chosen. But in the majority of cases we see, the die has been cast, as in Sandra Bullock’s case. When the couple has passed the proverbial “point of no return” (one party cheating with porn stars?), then the real question is how to move on respectfully and with dignity. And I suggest that Sandra Bullock, at least from what we can glean through the press, has done exactly that. It is refreshing to see and likely inspirational to many.
Last week in Baltimore, MD, the University of Baltimore Law School and the ABA Family Law Section co-hosted a very special event, The Families Matter Symposium. The “Families Matter” idea is a platform of three consecutive Chairs of the ABA Family Law Section with the goal of reducing the negative consequences of Family Law on families, and most importantly children. 65 experts from across the country convened, at their own cost, to explore and share ideas on how to achieve this goal. There were large working groups which broke into small working groups and then reported back to the whole group over the two full days of the Symposium. There were judges, psychologists, financial experts and lawyers, all working together. Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears was a featured speaker as was Maryland Supreme Court Chief Judge Bell.
While the program was a great start, it was only that, a start. There were great ideas that will take a lot of effort and time to implement. There was a consensus that it is impossible to create a flow chart for a family law case that would work perfectly. Every case is different. But there was agreement on many needed changes to the family law system. The concept of “triage”, immediately figuring out what a case needs and prioritizing situations based on different priorities (violence, kids needs, foreclosure?) was considered. “Early case intervention” was another popular (and similar) thought. Another discussion focused on law school preparation (and encouragement) of students to practice in this area.
So what are the next steps? One step is a comprehensive CLE Program which will be worked into the ABA Family Law Section’s next Spring CLE seminar. Beyond that we must figure out how to assimilate these and other great ideas into the general practice of family law. Judge and lawyer training and specialization? More frank discussions between the bench and bar (and mental health experts)? Family law is becoming more, not less complex. Relocation issues, gay marriage issues, international custody issues are all on the rise. Without consistently taking the time to study and try to improve our family law system, we do a disservice to our community.
Kudos to all those (and there are so, so many) that take the time and effort to work to better our system. Our superior court judges and their staffs, the many governmental agencies that are overburdened, and the legal and mental health practitioners who see the problems daily are all doing their part. The question is what else can we do. Certainly we all agree more needs to be done. So let’s keep exploring what can be done, and of course, lets do as much as we all can.
Please visit the blog maintained by the Center for Families, Children & the Courts: http://ub-cfcc.blogspot.com/