VOL. 125 | NO. 13 | Thursday, January 21, 2010
Memphis Law Talk
Richards Honored With AWA’s Marion Griffin-Frances Loring Award
By Rebekah Hearn
University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Professor Janet L. Richards will be honored today by the Association for Women Attorneys with the AWA Marion Griffin-Frances Loring Award as incoming president. Memphis attorney Michele Howard-Flynn will take the helm of the association.
Richards teaches primarily child and family law. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis in 1969 and her juris doctorate from the U of M in 1976, after which she spent two years in private practice. Richards attended law school part-time at Loyola University before joining the U of M law faculty, where she served as the associate dean for academic affairs. In 1987, she took a year off to obtain an LL.M. degree from Yale Law School.
Richards has written four books on family and child law, including “Richards on Tennessee Family Law,” now in its third edition and currently being updated by Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Janice M. Holder. Richards has also published law review articles and is an elected member of the American Law Institute.
She has served on the Family Law Code Revision Commission of the Tennessee Bar Association since its formation, and is a past chair of the Association of American Law Schools’ Family Law Section and the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society. Richards also served as the reporter for the Civil Justice Reform Act Advisory Group for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee and the Tennessee Bar Association Task Force on the Judiciary.
Q: What are some of the most difficult parts of teaching child and family law to law students?
A: The cases are often emotionally difficult to read. A number of students have not previously been exposed to the terrible conditions that some children endure and find the materials both shocking and upsetting. In addition, I have to keep in mind that I may have students in class who have experienced some of the situations that we are covering, such as domestic violence, child abuse, contested divorces, custodial relocations, child support arrearages, same-sex relationships, etc. Those students may be reluctant to discuss those topics, on the one hand, or may be extremely vocal and opinionated on the other hand. My job, as I see it, is to make sure that the class discussion remains professional and focused on the legal issues and that everyone is treated with respect, by both me and the other students.
Q: What is the biggest hurdle to overcome in teaching this area?
A: I think the greatest difficulty is trying to balance scope and depth of coverage in family law. The material in family law cuts through the curriculum, covering such diverse areas as constitutional law, procedure, evidence, contracts, torts, income tax, criminal law and bankruptcy. I feel like we are just touching the tip of the iceberg in each area, because we don’t have time to explore each of these issues in-depth.
Q: Do you see room for improvement with regard to juvenile issues, particularly child custody? Would those improvements entail changes in laws or changes in the way our court system operates?
A: Yes, I believe that there is room for improvement with regard to child custody issues. In particular, I believe that the courts can do more to manage high conflict or acrimonious divorce cases involving custody issues in order to protect the children involved. Other states have procedures in place to address high-conflict custody cases. Making the changes in Tennessee, of course, would require additional resources and perhaps legislative action. The adversarial system generally is not well-suited to handle custody issues. Courts are now encouraging and/or requiring parties to participate in alternative dispute procedures, such as mediation, in an attempt to lessen the acrimony between parents.
I also believe and have written that in custody cases, and other cases involving children, the children’s best interests often conflict with the parents’ rights. Current law generally preferences parental rights over children’s best interests in such cases. My view is that the opposite result should occur in most instances.
Q: In your writings, have you discussed the experiences of children whose parents are incarcerated or on probation/parole?
A: Parental rights of incarcerated parents is one of those areas in which parental rights sometimes conflict with and prevail over children’s best interests. I am working on an article addressing parental rights in cases where one parent kills the other. I argue that the parental rights, if any, to custody and/or visitation should be based solely on the child’s best interests.
Q: What are some of the most rewarding aspects of teaching child and family law?
A: I love teaching these courses. I think they give students an opportunity to examine and reflect on their own views regarding the sensitive issues addressed in the courses. At a recent 25-year reunion, a male student recalled that when he told me that his wife didn’t work, I corrected him and said, “You mean she doesn’t work outside the home.” He said he had never forgotten that remark, and neither had his wife, whom he told about our conversation.