If you have been through divorce then you are familiar with the rules and procedures that govern the legal process. Divorce is a civil action, and every state has rules of civil procedure.
What you don't hear about — but have probably fallen victim to — are the unwritten rules. These are the rules that define how judges and lawyers conduct themselves with each other. They have more to do with the outcome of a divorce case than the written rules.
In my next several posts, I'm going to talk about the unwritten rules and my personal experience with them. It's my opinion that when it comes to the Family Court system, the only interests served are those of divorce lawyers and judges.
Rule #1. Lawyers and judges cover for each other.
Most judges and lawyers will not report each other for misconduct or violations of judicial ethics. Judges especially can get away with bad behavior, because lawyers don't want to get on a judge's bad side. Lawyers know they will go before that judge again, and staying chummy with the judge is more important than their client getting a high standard of care.
In May 2002, I had a court hearing regarding two issues. My lawyer had filed a motion to clarify language in the final divorce decree regarding my former husband's retirement. She had also petitioned the courts for modification of child support. My oldest graduated from high school in 2002, and we wanted to make sure that post-majority support was in place to help with college expenses. He was scheduled to start college in the fall of 2002, and I knew without a court order his father would not voluntarily help with the expenses.
We went to court and the judge said he would "rule quickly" due to the post majority support issue. The wait began. Mid summer, I heard that the judge was retiring and had been appointed to another position in our city by the governor. At that time, it had been about two months since the hearing. I was hopeful that he would rule quickly since he was retiring and the time to pay tuition was swiftly approaching.
September 2002 came and there was no decision by the judge. December 2002 came and still no decision by the judge. In January 2003, the judge retired and left the bench without handing down a decision. My son was entering his second semester in college and still no decision that would mean financial help for him.
By the time the judge retired, I was calling my attorney weekly to inquire as to why there was no ruling, and what we could do about it. I'm a fairly logical person, and my thinking was to write a letter to the judge and opposing counsel asking why there was no ruling. My attorney responded to that idea with, "Oh but we don't want to piss the judge off."
She was willing to do nothing but "wait." Wait for what I ask her? The judge had retired and had left not only my case but also nearly 200 cases in all with no rulings. I talked to women who were losing their homes because he had not ruled on their case. One lady had to pull her daughter out of her first year of medical school because he had not ruled on her case. She couldn't afford the expense of keeping her daughter in school. There were women having to go to their churches and ask for financial help because this judge retired from office without ruling on their cases. All of these women were dealing with lawyers who didn't want to rock the boat and piss off a judge, who was no longer a judge.
I lost faith in my attorney and started interviewing, trying to find a new attorney. I could not find one attorney willing to take over my case and force the issue of a judge who blatantly violated judicial ethics. Even though the judge was retired and they knew they would never try a case in front of him again, they knew, he had influence and friends on the bench. That was more important to them than their clients and the fact that someone in their profession had committed an ethics violation. Most lawyers won't make an enemy out of a judge no matter how much financial and emotional stress it will cost a client.
I had to start over from scratch on both issues. The court was so backlogged from all the cases that the judge left open that it took 18 months to get a new court date in front of a new judge. I got a quick ruling the second time around. Not that it made much difference. My former husband defied the court order and paid nothing that he was ordered to pay toward college expenses.
My former brother-in-law — a lawyer — told me to take him back to court for contempt of court. I had to laugh because that is a suggestion I heard often. It is something I even tried doing on several occasions. Only problem is when you are dealing with lawyers and judges who can't hold themselves accountable, the chances of them holding someone else accountable are slim to none. The Family Court system I was involved with made a mockery out of the phrase "standard of care."
Cathy Meyer is the head of About.com's Divorce Support channel. To hear more from Cathy, go to: divorcesupport.about.com