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VOL. 123 | NO. 12 | Thursday, January 17, 2008

Group Studies Family Court Creation

By Bill Dries

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Family Court: Baltimore Style

Dr. Barbara Babb, director of the University of Baltimore Law School's Center for Families, Children & The Courts will speak at three public forums Tuesday and Wednesday at the Urban Child Institute, 600 Jefferson Ave.

Babb, along with Gloria Danziger and Judith Moran - also of the center - will look over the local court system and talk about Baltimore's family court system. Tuesday's sessions are at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Wednesday's meeting is a 10 a.m. session.

As the question of government consolidation is debated in a bright and often hot media spotlight, a panel of judges, attorneys and social service providers has been quietly debating the idea of legal consolidation.

The group is considering the creation of a family court to hear the wide variety of legal issues involving families, from domestic violence to some juvenile offenses to child support matters. Their recommendations are due on the desks of county leaders by the end of March.

The study is an outgrowth of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners' discussion about changes in the structure of Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County. The family court panel has held two meetings already this month.

No clear consensus has emerged yet. And if they didn't know it already, those on the panel are discovering that creating such a court would involve clearing many of the procedural hurdles facing a city and county government merger. Approval of legislation by the Tennessee General Assembly would be required, possibly even an amendment or two to the Tennessee Constitution. Those at the helm of the different judicial jurisdictions already are keeping a close eye on the details of even a hypothetical concentration of legal authority in one court.

Many questions

General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Ann Pugh said her fellow jurists have questioned whether one court would be enough - believing there would be just one judge.

"We're talking about a whole system of courts," Pugh said tentatively. "Right? Is that what we're talking about?"

"I don't think we know what we're talking about," said Circuit Court Judge Rita Stotts, who is chairman of the group. "What we're going to do is talk about different courts that have different jurisdictions that address family law ... jurisdictional issues."

Pugh pointed out that she and her fellow judges cannot hear civil matters even if they are directly related to a criminal case.

"Are we talking about something that can even be done?" she asked.

Attorney Sonja White, who has a family practice with a specialty in domestic violence cases, is among those on the panel who believe the current diffused system doesn't serve families in crisis as well as it should. She cited examples in which a family with one basic problem has been through three different court systems to solve that same problem.

"When you have a system that's not communicating in order to solve problems within that family, then you're not helping that family to move past whatever that issue may be," White said. "Every opportunity a family gets to interact with the system is a chance for us to make a change in that family's life. ... If we don't take that opportunity, which is what I think is happening now, then we lose that chance and we get what we get now."

Shelby County Public Defender Robert Jones said that includes murder cases his office has seen where several murders are tied to a single family.

"There are families that are in crisis. And this is where the crime is coming from," Jones said. "If we had a system like this it would be extremely helpful."

And, Jones added, if Memphis was a small town it would be relatively easy to establish a family court. He also pointed to some thorny procedural and ethical issues raised by others on the panel.

Family fatigue

Stotts and Juvenile Court referee Dan Michael questioned whether a single judge deliberating on all of the legal issues of a single troubled family might lead to a form of "judge fatigue" or test the impartiality of the judge trying to sort out the tangled lives involved.

"I may find a mother has committed severe abuse in a dependency and neglect proceeding. Should I be the judge to terminate her parental rights two years later when she's failed to follow the foster care plan?" Michael asked. "I knew who she was two years ago. I've watched her stumble and fall and not do her job all the way along. I've formed an opinion of her. Why not give that case to a fresh judge? Let that fresh judge have a fresh perspective before we terminate her parental rights."

But Connie Ross, program director of the Family Safety Center, said there is a need for more "legal advocacy" - a "problem-solving legal system."

"Would Juvenile Court ever communicate with a judge that has jurisdiction over a divorce?" she asked Michael.

"Maybe as a tangential matter," said Michael as he used Stotts as an example. "But I'm not going to discuss the case with her in Circuit Court and she's not going to discuss the details of the case in Circuit Court with me in Juvenile Court."

"Then I guess the issue is whether that is good," Ross replied.

"It's an ethical issue as far as I'm concerned. I don't believe I can," Michael responded.

"We have cases in Juvenile Court. ... They are lifelong cases. The families keep coming back. You can get to form opinions as a judge. I had a wise friend of mine tell me one time - he practices elsewhere - that they had a one-judge, one-family court. And if the judge took a dislike to you, you had to wait two years for the judge to rotate off the bench before you could get a fair decision."

The family court panel will look to Baltimore, Md., for ideas on what might work in Memphis and Shelby County. Baltimore has a Family Division of Circuit Court that includes social services along with judicial decisions.

Dr. Barbara Babb, associate law professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, is scheduled to visit Memphis' Urban Child Institute Tuesday and Wednesday. She is director of the law school's Center for Families, Children & The Courts.

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