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Two lawyers who ingloriously ended a custody battle last year by arranging a Bahamian marriage for the teen-age girl at the heart of the dispute were sanctioned more than $13,000 Tuesday by a Los Angeles appeal court. Almost simultaneously, a commissioner in Placerville, Calif., annulled the 16-year-old’s marriage, calling the eight-month union “a sham.” The decisions were twin body blows for Southern California solo practitioners Melodye Hannes and Richard Marcus, who have continually maintained that Melissa Williams’ marriage is valid and that what they did was in the best interest of their clients, Williams’ maternal grandparents. Neither Hannes, of Van Nuys, Calif., nor Marcus, of Los Angeles, could be reached for comment Tuesday. But Marcus remained defiant, immediately faxing El Dorado County Superior Court Commissioner Gregory Dwyer a letter in which he pledged to seek a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction in Sacramento federal court if he didn’t revoke his annulment ruling. The whole strange saga began in 1999, when Melissa’s grandparents, Fran and Arthur Weiss, of Los Angeles, petitioned Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez for guardianship rights. Melissa’s father, Terry Williams, of Placerville, resisted and eventually retained custody in June 2001. But unbeknownst to him or his attorney, Garden Valley, Calif., solo Freda Pechner, Hannes — with the Weisses’ consent — took Melissa to the Bahamas where on July 2 she wed Austin Holzer, the 19-year-old son of Melissa’s deceased mom’s best friend. An enraged 2nd District Court of Appeal dismissed the custody dispute in February, pointing out that Melissa’s marriage emancipated her and nullified the proceedings. But it agreed to hear arguments on sanctions at the request of Melissa’s father. On Tuesday, six days after the sanction hearing, the appeal court slammed Hannes and Marcus, ordering them to pay Melissa’s father $13,004 in sanctions. The ruling in Guardianship of Melissa W., B151211, also said Melissa’s dad would recover costs on appeal and referred Hannes and Marcus to the State Bar for investigation. “By undermining the trial court’s judgment,” Justice Richard Aldrich wrote, “grandparents and counsel have forfeited their right to prosecute this appeal.” Justices Joan Dempsey Klein and Patti Kitching concurred. Hannes and Marcus said last month they believed that the trial court order last year had frozen the proceedings, leaving the grandparents, not the father, as the legal guardian. They also claimed that they had told Melissa and her grandparents about the possibility of marriage out of fear of State Bar discipline if they failed to offer all legal options. They hadn’t told their opponents or the appeal court because their clients had insisted that the marriage be kept secret. The appeal court, however, stated in a footnote Tuesday that there is “a great difference” between advising clients of legal options and frustrating a court’s judgment “by accompanying a child to a foreign jurisdiction for the purpose of entering into a questionable marriage.” The father’s lawyer, Pechner, said Tuesday that El Dorado County Commissioner Dwyer had upheld the Los Angeles County order denying guardianship to the grandparents and said their consent to the marriage was invalid. Pechner said Dwyer, in Williams v. Holzer, PFL 20010567, also issued a legal finding that “a contrived marriage would not undermine orders of the court, nor could it be used to defeat and damage the parent-child relationship.” She said Dwyer also said he was not going to give full faith and credit to “a sham marriage.” In his faxed response to Dwyer, Marcus argued that “the judgment of nullity issued could not have a binding effect upon Melissa because Melissa was never served with the petition for annulment and has never subjected herself to the jurisdiction of the court.” Bahamian authorities, meanwhile, notified Pechner in a letter Tuesday that they had never seen a copy of the judgment denying guardianship to the grandparents, only a consent under Hannes’ office letterhead. “If Melissa’s grandparents come to the Bahamas,” a lawyer for the Bahamian government wrote, “they could be guests at her Majesty’s Prison for what they did (in effect, fraud).” The grandparents and the lawyers also face a damages suit filed by the father in El Dorado County. The El Dorado court also ordered Melissa to be returned to her dad and her younger sister immediately, and demanded mediation concerning grandparent visitation rights. Mediation begins Monday, but Marcus’ letter about appealing the annulment likely means it won’t take place. “I wrote to the judge and said we’re still willing to mediate,” Pechner said. “It’s all about the dad and his kids, not about ego.”

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