Legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick reflects on the case of Darren Mack, a Reno man who allegedly stabbed to death his estranged wife and shot (but did not kill) the family law judge presiding over their case. In this instance,the author is not just another journalist: she knew the couple and represented the man in his first divorce years ago. She doesn't pretend to have a special insight about the particulars of this incident (why the man might have done what he is accused of), but she comments on the experience of being a litigant in family court:
[T]he judge doesn't have to be an ogre to make someone suffer in family court. I don't know what drives a person to snap, but I do know this about family law: If you strongly self-identify as a parent, and Darren Mack did, then it can be uniquely brutalizing.Dahlia Lithwick, The Fall of The Father Of the Year, Washington Post, June 18, 2006, at B02.
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I suspect that men whose public lives are defined by fatherhood are going to be disappointed by the court system, though they don't always see it that way. They put themselves in the hands of the system to rescue this part of their identity. Their marriage is over but they're still sure they can be Father of the Year. * * * But the system is crafted to make you share that parenting trophy -- sometimes while still carrying the full financial load. And suddenly, without warning, you're Father of the Alternating Weekend.
The lawyers I worked for did everything in their power to help clients maintain perspective and foster sanity. But if you are the sort of person who desperately wants to use the courts to crush your opponent, you don't always hear that.
Divorce courts tend to leave that desire to crush unresolved. Family court judges have no interest in crushing anyone, so there are few epic victories in family court. The judges and the lawyers and the court-appointed special advocates and the forensic accountants and the therapists all work hard to more or less split the baby. And in the best cases, the parents are wildly frustrated but the kids are stable.
Maybe a system that looks adversarial isn't the best way to foster that compromise. Courts create the illusion that at the end of the day there will be a winner. Yet, in my limited experience, no one has ever "won" their divorce.
Hat tip: Carolyn Elefant at MyShingle.
Update (6/22): The Reno Gazette-Journal is hosting a blog about the incident: Judge Weller Shooting. One commenter remarked that some reaction was skewed, focusing attention primarily on the judge (consider the blog title: "Judge Weller Shooting"). It's bad to attempt to kill a judge, but shouldn't the community also be upset about the successful killing of the man's wife? Many news stories can be found here.
Filed in: judges, family-law, domestic-violence, practice-of-law, Lithwick, Elefant, Weller, Mack