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A New Jersey appeals court is poised to review a judge’s order that a divorced couple install Big Brother-style video cameras in every room of their separate homes, except the bathrooms. The judge’s intention was to force the pair to comply with their child visitation agreement and to prove or disprove the alleged abuse of the pair’s daughter, but the order also allows the former husband and wife to spy on each other 24 hours a day. The ex-wife’s appeal, to be argued Dec. 12 in the Appellate Division, has drawn the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which is seeking to appear amicus curiae. The ACLU’s brief — which dubs the surveillance order “Orwellian” and calls the parties “unwilling participants in a never-ending reality television show” –also cites anti-search and seizure safeguards and privacy concerns as a legal basis for striking it down. “The order would empower the [former spouses] to harass and tyrannize each other on a scale that did not exist during the marriage,” the brief goes on. Geraldine Clemente, now a resident of Freehold Township, N.J., sued her husband, Michael Clemente, a millionaire pharmaceutical salesman who now lives in Howell, N.J., for divorce in December 1999. A divorce, incorporating a property settlement, was granted last May. Since then, both sides have kept up a stream of allegations and motions in attempts to alter visitation rights for their daughter, 16-year-old Kristen Clemente. (The couple also have a son and a stepson.) Tens of thousands of dollars continue to shift between the couple’s accounts as the litigation plays out. The past two years of recriminations have clearly tested the patience of Superior Court Judge Louis Locascio in Monmouth County, who entered the surveillance order. Indeed, Clemente v. Clemente bears every sign of being the divorce case from hell. Geraldine has accused Michael of being addicted to valium and of being “not your typical custody litigant but an agitated, over-focused troubled psychotherapy patient.” In turn, Michael believes his ex-wife to be an alcoholic who is brainwashing his children to hate him. In his attempts to sort through the mess and to enforce the visitation agreement, Locascio has managed to place in jeopardy the daughter’s summer job as a lifeguard, her career as a soccer player and her relationship with her boyfriend, the girl has claimed in testimony. At least one of the parties has gone out of their way to antagonize the judge: A fax, allegedly from the defendant, called Locascio a “hot-tempered guinea.” The surveillance order arose when Geraldine brought an order to show cause seeking supervision of Kristen’s visits to her father’s home. She repeated allegations that Kristen was the subject of verbal assaults and inappropriate attention from her father when she was in the shower or her bedroom. During the hearing, Locascio asked Geraldine’s counsel, Robin Wernik of Granata, Wernik & Zaccardi in Matawan, N.J., what Kristen wanted done about the problem. Wernik replied, “Kristen would like to have a video camera installed in the house … because no one believes her about what goes on with her father.” The judge then turned to Michael’s counsel, George Chehanske of Leibowitz & Chehanske in Freehold, N.J., and asked what conditions he sought for Kristen’s visits with her mother. Chehanske hesitated, but said he’d like the same condition: video surveillance. Locascio was initially skeptical, but after remembering that both parties were rich enough to afford cameras in every room, taping all day, seven days a week, he warmed to the notion: “What’s good for one is good for the other, right?” By this point, the judge had grown so irritated at both parties’ inability to follow his orders, not to mention the he-said/she-said nature of the arguments, that he had threatened both parents and their daughter with jail. The order for camera surveillance was entered July 31. It reads: “There shall be audio and video surveillance of every room in Geraldine Clemente’s house except the bathrooms. There shall be audio and video surveillance of every room in Michael Clemente’s house except the bathrooms.” The parties were to swap tapes every five days. Realizing how much the surveillance order would inconvenience her client, Wernik went back to court in August with a cross-motion for reconsideration. But Locascio had become even more enthusiastic over the preceding month. “This should be done in every case,” the judge said in denying reconsideration Aug. 28. “As soon as the complaint for divorce is filed, zap! Videos and audios in every room in the house except the bathroom. It’s brilliant. So you don’t have this he said/she said stuff.” Wernik, citing Fourth Amendment concerns and the state constitution’s right-to-privacy language, moved successfully in the Appellate Division for a stay while the order is appealed. Michael’s attorney, Chehanske, opposed the motion on three grounds: that the stay would cause irreparable harm by not allowing him to protect his daughter while she is at her mother’s house; that the doctrine of judicial estoppel prevents Wernik from overturning something she asked for; and that the family court has the power to make the order. In recent weeks, Michael Clemente retained a new attorney, Glenn Peterson of Peterson & Peterson in Clifton, N.J., who is rather less keen on going to the appeals court than his predecessor was. “This is going to be very expensive to install,” he said of the multiple cameras and centralized video-recording facility that would be required. His client had been quoted $8,500 for the job, he said. Wernik last week drafted a consent order to vacate Locascio’s decision and is hoping Peterson and his client will sign it. However, since the judge has repeatedly expressed his desire to see his orders carried out, the chances of his granting the order without new concessions from both parties seem slim. Wernik now finds herself in the odd position of arguing against a remedy that the transcript appears to say she requested. But she believes case law indicates that even if her client agreed to the surveillance, it’s such a gross invasion of privacy that she has the right to withdraw her consent at any time. “My client was put on the spot,” Wernik said. “And then she said to herself, ‘What am I doing? I’ve done nothing wrong. Why do I have to have cameras in my house?’” Grayson Barber, a Princeton, N.J., solo practitioner who is appearing for the ACLU, says, “I think judges in Family Part do have some freedom to come up with innovative solutions to problems, but this particular one violates the United States Constitution.” The appeal will be heard by Judges Michael King, Barbara Wecker and Michael Winkelstein. Judge Locascio did not return a call seeking comment.

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