Pattis-Norm
Pattis-Norm ()

You know the state’s Judicial Branch is bleeding when the chief justice takes to writing opinion pieces. I am not referring to legal opinions, mind you. I mean op-ed pieces designed and intended to influence lawmakers, as in the piece Chief Justice Chase Rogers penned, or had penned for her, in The Hartford Courant the other day.

She was writing to let lawmakers know that all is well in the family courts. Sure, there are a few disgruntled litigants out there. But what would you expect? Family cases represent, and I quote, “painful and heart-wrenching scenarios.” The chief wanted us to know that the Branch supports change. You see, the Judicial Branch cares, it really does. It supports the addition of more “family relations counselors” to the court staff.

Goodness gavel, Chase, don’t you get it? Complainants are aching for less, not more, state involvement in their lives. The last thing the courts need are more paid professionals trying to impose their vision about what is the “best interests” of their children. The nub of the controversy is that in high-conflict cases, a small cadre of highly paid professionals is growing fat and sassy, while the families they serve go broke.

It proves precisely nothing to state that 54 percent of family cases are resolved after one mediation session, and that 77 percent resolve after two sessions. Low-conflict cases would most likely have resolved with no mediation sessions at all. To claim that a mandatory mediation program causes successful outcomes is to confuse causation and correlation.

It worries me to see the state’s top judge sign on to the role of therapist. The court’s structure and function in our society is to resolve disputes, not to serve as adjuncts to the ministrations of therapists without portfolio. Courts handled divorces for decades, if not centuries, without adopting a quasi-therapeutic mission. Why not question the very premise that the courts can, and should, administer a therapeutic regime of therapists, psychologists, social workers and mediators, many of whom cross-refer cases to one another, and most of whom are part of a culture fostered by the Judicial Branch?

Consider the following: The Judicial Branch requires that anyone wanting to work as a guardian ad litem or an attorney for minor children attend a six-session training course. Just what does the Branch expect someone to learn in six weeks, other than the phone numbers of other folks hoping to feed from the same trough?

I suppose we ought to be grateful the Branch is prepared to acknowledge the obvious: there should be guidelines the court should follow in appointing guardians ad litem; there needs be a means of holding guardians ad litem accountable, including a way of limiting their fees; there should be a process for parents to request removal of guardians who aren’t doing their jobs; guardians ought to have a written code of conduct. Who created this mess, Chief?

Rogers gets behind these proposals as though she discovered them. These are some of the very reforms for which advocates outside the Branch have been pressing.

The chief justice’s opinion piece reveals far more than it intends. Truisms aren’t insights. Judges aren’t equipped to play the role of therapists, or therapeutic adjuncts. Adopting part of the agenda of those seeking reform and suggesting these are your own ideas suggests a Branch without vision, a Branch that, in fact, is in way over its head.

Lawmakers need to press on with asking hard questions about the family courts. Whatever answer they adopt, they ought not to be seduced by the chief’s special pleading. All Rogers accomplished in her piece was to defend the status quo: There wouldn’t be a crisis brewing in the family courts if the Judicial Branch hadn’t help create one.•