I had a very nice lunch recently with a judge who handles a family court calendar, swapping war stories and such.
There’s never any shortage of good war stories in a field like family law. I still remember the very first family court hearing I ever witnessed.
The first case of the morning was called, and the judge said something like this: “The court is not going to revisit these issues, Mr. Smith. The court has already found that you planted cocaine in your ex-wife’s house and called the police on her. The court has already found that you quit your six-figure-salary job so that you could stalk your ex-wife full-time. Pay her what you owe her by 8:30 tomorrow morning, or you are going to jail.”
Of course, not all hearings are that dramatic. Most transcripts look more like this:
Mrs. Jones’ lawyer: Is the marriage irretrievably broken?
Mrs. Jones: [triumphantly] Yes, it is.
Mr. Jones’ lawyer: Is the marriage irretrievably broken?
Mr. Jones: [sheepishly] I guess so.
At least that’s what the transcripts would look like if court reporters added stage directions like playwrights do.
Divorce is harder for men; they don’t just lose their wives; they lose their children, houses, and indeed, their entire social networks. And all they get in exchange is the freedom that Kris Kristofferson called, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”
But that’s just the way it is, and always will be. One aspect about modern divorce, however, doesn’t have to be accepted that passively: the high percentage of couples who get divorced pro se.
The judge at lunch spoke wistfully about the good old days when an experienced family lawyer could walk into court in the morning with eight different couples, and get them all safely divorced without even breaking for a cigarette.
Nowadays, he said, the majority of cases are pro se, and it takes forever for the parties to bumble and stumble their way through the process.
This is an outrage. Any couple that is wealthy enough to suddenly switch from supporting one household to supporting two households is wealthy enough to hire a fine Wisconsin attorney to guide them through the process, rather than imposing an undue burden on the nice judge and the rest of the court employees.
Even more outrageous is that the court system and Wisconsin bar associations exacerbate the problem by making it easier for the wealthy to divorce without hiring licensed Wisconsin attorneys. They actually provide free forms to enable these people to waste the court’s time.
The judge said that only once in a while will he require a couple to hire attorneys – when they have plenty of money to do so, and they have clearly demonstrated an inability to prepare a Qualified Domestic Relations Order on their own.
But forcing divorcing couples to hire attorneys should be the norm, not the exception.
The problem is, divorce is a fundamental right, just like sex and abortion. And whenever something is declared a fundamental right, people expect others to go out of their way to make it easy for them to exercise that right.
But the State doesn’t expend resources to enable people to have sex, as they do in Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, “We,” or in Huxley’s blatant rip-off, “Brave New World.” If you want to have sex, you have to go find your own willing partner.
And the State doesn’t pay for abortions. You hire a doctor and pay for it yourself.
Yet, the State provides free forms to facilitate people in clogging up the already overburdened court system, just because they woke up one morning and decided they were no longer happy together.
It’s an outrage. This is the United States of America, for goodness’ sake. We have the best court system in the world. Let these people hire attorneys like real Americans!