Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Fall of The Father Of the Year

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.

* * *

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.
Dahlia Lithwick, The Fall of The Father Of the Year, Washington Post, June 18, 2006, at B02.

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.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dahlia Lithwick makes a strong case for changing the family court system, getting away from the more traditional "adversarial" approach where there is a perceived winner. In fact, several states have overhauled the family court requiring mediators, with the judge only coming in when there is no chance of finding common ground.

The problem with this process is that lawyers don't make the big money trying to get TTH visitation instead of MW.

Dahlia gave us a hint of her relationship with the alleged murderer and attempted murderer:

"I billed hundreds of hours on the Mack case many years ago, when I was clerking for a small family law firm in Reno and he was fighting his first wife for custody of their children....Darren was somehow always at the other side of my desk, or on the other end of the phone line, urging me to think about why his kids needed him, and why he alone was their ally.

Hundreds of hours billed, urging her to think of ways he was his kid’s only ally? and only needed him?

She says she had no idea this man could step over the line any more than any other? . But don't you all see something strange about someone is so obsessed that he doesn't see how much his children need others, including their mother, grandmother and other family members?

And he was always on the phone trying to get what? More time, Christmas instead of Thanksgiving, longer summers, whatever. She knew he did not have his kid’s best interest in mind. But how many of her clients do? Right? So why is he her problem?

I can't believe that she didn't see his obsession as problematic. But if she did, maybe she would have to take personal responsibility, instead of dropping it on the family court. She would have to say, well, I knew the whole thing was wrong, wrong, wrong, and she should have insisted her law firm pull the plug on the playboy, father wannabe who spent all of his time fighting to see his kids instead of being with them.