A man is jailed for criticizing a judge on his blog. Another is found in contempt of court for expressing frustration in private Facebook comments. An evaluator charges $7,500 for a single interview. Judges order divorcing parents to sell their homes. Lawyers contribute to judges' campaign funds to receive favorable treatment in court.
This kind of behavior is not what we expect in American courts, with our constitutional protections, but it is common in family courts, according to charges made in the independent documentary film Divorce Corp. opening in theaters in 15 states today.
The film reminds us that divorce is expensive and can lead to years-long fights over alimony, child support, and custody; that's not surprising. Many of us have been through that process or watched family members go through it.
What is shocking in this film is the depiction of lawlessness in the family courts -- the lack of oversight that allows judges to insert themselves in the most personal and arbitrary way into people's private lives, their relationships with their children, their finances, and even their right to express themselves privately outside of the courtroom.
Some of these actions can be appealed, but appeals often fail. Some are decided by judges who are friends or former colleagues of the judges whose actions they are reviewing. And even when appeals stand a reasonable chance of success, they are often dropped because they quickly become impossibly expensive.
Divorce Corp. was made by Joseph Sorge, a television producer in Los Angeles who is responsible for 6 Little McGhees on the Oprah Winfrey network, a reality show about a family with sextuplets.
Television was a career change for Sorge, who went to medical school and started a biotech company called Stratagene, which he later sold. He financed Divorce Corp. himself, at a cost of $2 million, he told me in an interview earlier this week.
The inspiration came from the hours he spent in family court during his own divorce, which had "a favorable outcome, compared to most people," he said. But he saw what was happening around him. "What I learned going through the process was that there were some very strange dynamics going on between the judges and the lawyers." Judges would order discovery for things that seemed immaterial, he said, and hearings would seem to go on endlessly, without any clear reason. And as the hearings went on, the lawyers' bills grew.
Some of what appears in the film has been seen before, such as the disturbing video of Texas family court judge William Adams beating his disabled daughter for downloading music and games from the Internet. And some of it is difficult to verify. Sorge's film makes a strong case for reformation of the family courts, but not all of the charges made in the film are fully documented.
I'm inclined to think that most of what the film depicts is accurate, but critics could argue that Sorge has cherry-picked his examples and not quite proven his case. The film is mainly a series of talking heads, and some of the same sources are used too often. Sorge might have done better to hire an experienced investigative reporter to guide us through the examples and show us the documents. Instead, we get a narration from the television personality Dr. Drew Pinsky, of celebrity rehab fame, who doesn't lend the same kind of authority.
Even so, the film creates a powerful impression of a justice system run amok. It's a kind of real-life Hunger Games -- when things seem to be approaching a conclusion, suddenly all the rules are changed.
Sorge ends the film ends with a call for reformation of family courts, but he doesn't suggest a way to do that. Do we need federal legislation? Is this a battle that should be waged in the states? And how would reformers break through the chumminess of judges and lawyers? With so many people reaping financial benefits from what appears to be a very corrupt family court, who has the incentive to change it?
The only way to change the destructive practices in the courts is to mobilize public opinion against them. But many of those who've experienced family courts as the result of divorce are angry -- and that anger has not led to the kind of changes Sorge would like to see.
The family courts need far better oversight. But that's unlikely to happen without the concurrence of family court lawyers and judges -- who have nothing to gain from reform, and everything to lose. Some kind of caps have to be put on lawyers' fees, so that they do not profit from excessive litigation. And strong conflict-of-interest rules have to be put in place to block judges, lawyers, and others from engaging in questionable financial deals.
Divorce Corp. clearly shows why such reforms are necessary. It also shows how difficult they will be to achieve.