Dubois-Mark
Attorney Mark Dubois ()

If what I saw the other day at the Rules Committee hearing on proposed Practice Book changes is any indication, the Judicial Branch (and all of us) are in for a rough year ahead.

For those who have never attended a Rules Committee hearing, it is commonly believed that things are pretty well set by the time they get to hearing stage and, absent some major upset or error, what has been proposed will be recommended to the judges for adoption after a pro forma airing. That was not to be the case this time, however.

I knew something was up when I uncharacteristically arrived a half-hour early and found a line of folks signing up to testify stretching out of the Supreme Court courtroom into the foyer. One of them was clearly their manager, as he walked back and forth giving advice on how to sign up anonymously and how some folks might want to pool their time to make a longer argument. I rightly guessed that this bunch were from the anti-GAL/AMC crowd, but I had no idea what was to follow.

You know it’s going to be a long day when the first speaker on a topic quotes Thomas Jefferson. As I listened to the tales of woe and tribulation that followed, I was torn between sympathy and anger.

Many of the speakers were clearly hurting, and their claims and accusations evinced a system that, at least for them, was not working as it should have. But to hear some of them, you would think that the family courts involve a bunch of judges who randomly, unilaterally and without cause deprive fragile parents of their children while saddling them with crushing debt to pay for attorney for minor child and guardian ad litem services provided (or not provided) by their corrupt cronies. It just isn’t so, and it’s sad when folks are so unable to deal with the consequences of their own conduct that they fabricate an alternate reality.

After the first hour or so of what appeared to be mostly nonsense, including threats of federal lawsuits, claims that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects those with “different” ways of parenting, endless reading of long proposed rules (several by tandem teams of speakers) and all sorts of other antics, I began to feel very sorry for the judges who stoically sat there and listened politely as each speaker used every second of their allotted time to tell them just what was wrong with them and their courts.

The fact that there weren’t any proposed rules on AMC/GAL conduct on the agenda didn’t seem to bother anyone. Any soapbox is fine when you feel yourself put upon. I understand that this theater was more of what the judges and judicial nominees appearing before the Judiciary Committee had to endure earlier this year.

Afterwards, I spoke with several lawyers about what had happened. One told me what I had seen was nothing compared to the vitriol regularly posted online accusing judges and lawyers in the family law system of being involved in child abuse, slavery, and pedophilia. Another told me about the climate of fear in courthouses, where judges and lawyers are spied upon by self-appointed vigilantes who file complaints over any perceived act of misconduct. Another spoke of her fear for her physical safety when dealing with some of these folks. Another reported that the tires on her car had been slashed. Many said they were going to stop doing GAL/AMC work altogether.

The universal feeling among all of the lawyers I have spoken to about this issue is that they are being scapegoated; blamed for a system which appears not to be able to effectively handle the dynamics, strains and challenges of “high-conflict” unrepresented divorcing parties. They feel abandoned and betrayed, especially after the 11th-hour deal at the legislature which passed a GAL/AMC reform bill (without a single nay vote) coincidental with the uncontested approval of all the pending judicial nominations. For the record, the Connecticut Bar Association had no part of any such deal (if there was one.)

What is also universal is the feeling that we are heading towards a system of two or maybe three “tracks” for divorcing couples. Most agree that there should be a simple administrative alternative to a judicially-approved divorce for couples with no kids, no alimony and an agreement on property division. Why should getting divorced be any harder than getting married? Do we really still need a “cooling-off” period? Shouldn’t adults be trusted to know what they want without judges “protecting” the sanctity of marriage?

The other two tracks involve contested cases. Those with money will hire lawyers and go the alternative dispute resolution route. The courts will be left with the residue; high-conflict, complex, self-represented cases. Sad, and not good from a social policy perspective, but probably a fact of life.

The only thing I know for certain is that the “anti” crowd is emboldened and empowered by their success in the legislature this year, and next year, being a long session, promises to be a free-for-all. •