Thursday, January 1, 2009

Good Government Allies

Many of us writers tend to be reclusive. But we cannot mount an effective movement alone. Our untested ideas are often sophomoric. (That can feel embarrassing, but it is perfectly normal!)

Be intentional about seeking comfortable friendships with people who know more about state government than you do. Build a network with allies. Together extend your reach to a wide range of experts. Respect their time and ask succinct questions to inform your strategies and compensate for any blind-spots.

To change the custody courts, we must change the law. The primary way to do that is by writing bills and lobbying for them in the state legislature, which has responsibility for domestic relations and child protection.

Lay people often feel intimidated trying to write legislation, which involves careful analysis of existing laws and definitions. It is not enough to simply insert a good idea. All new legislation must be harmonized with existing state laws.

To do that, work with your allies in the community to find a sympathetic state legislator who will submit your ideas as drafts to legislative lawyers, who can refine them and connect them to existing laws.

These legislative counsels will produce two companion versions of the bill--one for the House of Representatives and one for the Senate. You will need a legislator in each house to shepherd through this legislation, ideally a representative and a senator who actually sit on the House and Senate committees most likely to consider the bill.

The next phase is developing talking points and testimony for legislative hearings. Organize witnesses who will tell a legislative committee how they have been affected by problems in the existing law. You may need to help them write succinct statements explaining the impact of this law and why it needs to be changed. Set up a model hearing so your witnesses can practice presenting their statements and answering questions effectively.

Draft sample emails, letters, and phone messages, and organize a campaign to persuade legislators on the committees hearing your bill to promote it with their leadership and to make sure it passes. Identify those legislators who can best influence the governor to sign. Then your bill becomes law.

Start by reaching out to potential allies who may not have thought about this issue, but who might support your bill as part of their own legislative package. Coalition partners might include organizations promoting good government, like Common Cause and League of Women Voters, and others who work on issues relating to women and children, such as Coalitions Against Domestic Violence, National Organization for Women, American Association of University Women, and United Way. The American Civil Liberties Union may be a potential ally, but may be more likely to protect civil liberties of the accused over those of alleged victims.

Research your state's legislation promoting good-government. These are hard-won tools that can help us end the scandal in custody courts. Start with Google or another search engine: Search for good-government themes (such as: open meetings, conflict-of-interest, financial disclosure, ethics commission, whistleblowers' protection, etc.) + your state. Here are some Internet links to begin:

Open Meetings Laws
The Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press offers an Open Government Guide as a complete compendium of information on every state's open records and open meetings laws. Each state's section is arranged according to a standard outline, making it easy to compare laws in various states.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
The state version of this federal law goes by different names. In Rhode Island, we call it APRA, for the Access to Public Records Act. It allows people to request information that government officials must provide within ten days. The Parenting Project used this law to get information from our child protection agency:

Anti-SLAPP Suit Legislation
The United States and California constitutions grant every person the right to participate in government and civic affairs, speak freely on public issues, and petition government officials for redress of grievances. Yet, individuals and community groups are often sued for exercising these constitutional rights. These suits are known as "SLAPP suits," or "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation."

Soon after Rhode Island's Anti-SLAPP Suit legislation passed, a batterer tried to name me and our agency as third parties in his custody case because we were helping his wife. Our attorney identified his motion as a SLAPP suit because he was retaliating against our public participation on behalf of battered women. The judge threw out his motion against us.

Merit Selection of Judges
Those states that elect judges put justice on sale, throw open the door to profiteering, conflicts of interest, and the cabals that run custody scams. Where does your state stand on merit selection and public evaluation of judges? In Rhode Island, the Parenting Project has testified against Family Court judges seeking elevation to higher courts, based on their roles in custody scams. We attended interviews of candidates for judgeships and for child advocate. We submitted questions for Judicial Nominating Commissioners to ask candidates. And we sent a petition under the State's Administrative Procedures Act asking the Judicial Nominating Commission to change its rules and to require candidates for chief judge in any court to submit written statements about the improvements they needed in that court. We recently submitted this op-ed to the Providence Journal:

(727 words)
Improve the process to choose our Chief Justice
by Anne Grant

Should the Judicial Nominating Commission ask candidates for Chief Justice how they might help our courts serve the public more effectively?

In September, the Parenting Project petitioned Rhode Island’s Judicial Nominating Commission under the Administrative Procedures Act to require candidates for chief of any court to submit written statements of their views about issues facing that court and their visions for improving its performance.

We wrote: “the invitation to provide such a document would, among other things, show that the JNC, and more particularly our state courts, rise above personalities and politics to the highest principles of jurisprudence. Seasoned attorney applicants who love the law, revere the court system, and recognize the need for continuous improvement would have the opportunity to focus proactively on the court where they hope to serve. We believe that many applicants would offer valuable recommendations.”

Although the Act requires a substantive answer within thirty days, JNC chairperson Stephen Carlotti replied that the Commission would not consider our petition until they had a vacancy to fill. They now have four vacancies following the retirements of Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams and Family Court Associate Justice Howard I. Lipsey and the deaths of District Court Chief Judge Albert E. DeRobbio and Family Court Associate Justice Gilbert T. Rocha.

The process to fill these vacancies needs fine-tuning. But now the JNC has no time to promulgate a new rule, which would require a draft, public notice and hearings on the proposed change. Commissioners can still ask applicants to discuss their concerns about the judicial process and their ideas for improvements. But it is too late this time to require written statements.

That’s too bad for the commission, the governor, and legislators, who might make wiser decisions if they had more substantive information about what these candidates will do if appointed as chief justice. Too bad also for the public whose lives will be directly affected by the court.

Why did the Parenting Project make our request to the JNC?

We are a group of volunteers, including professionals and litigants involved in Rhode Island’s Family Court, who worry about children’s safety. We started meeting in 1996 to focus on custody cases in which the court seemed to punish children who protested domestic violence or sexual abuse by removing them from the parent they sought to live with and “reunifying” them with the parent they feared.

Judges who preside over Family Court and Superior Court may be nearing retirement also. We hoped that the JNC would find merit in our proposal and recognize the urgency of inviting candidates to write their views and visions for improving a system that struggles with enormous burdens. Just as our nation weighed the ideas and proposals of presidential candidates, Rhode Island needs to evaluate prospective judges. The JNC’s nominating procedure is the only place where that can happen.

Rhode Island is the only state where judges enjoy life tenure without review. Their salaries and pensions have long been among the highest in the nation. Two of Williams’ predecessors left the high court in disgrace in 1986 and 1993. Few would deny that our courts still have room for improvement.

It is hard to imagine any credible candidate seeking a lifetime position who would not expect to give specific reflections on critical issues and possible solutions related to that job. By urging applicants to undertake such analysis in writing, to describe best practices, and to envision improvements in our courts, the JNC could provide a valuable resource to Rhode Island.

Rather than examining applicants through the narrow lens of a single judicial position, such a rule could establish a process that encourages constructive dialogue within the community of judges and lawyers. This may catalyze positive change from within the system.

Candidates’ papers would stimulate discussion and produce a keener appreciation of judicial issues by students, journalists, and the larger public. These JNC documents would offer insight to each candidate’s thought process, temperament, and wisdom in approaching potentially divisive matters.

If the JNC fails to ask candidates to set forth their views and visions in writing, we hope Governor Carcieri, the leaders of the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate, and the press will, at the very least, ask all judicial candidates this vital question: What are your priorities for improving the court where you seek to serve?

Anne Grant coordinates the Parenting Project at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence. She is a retired pastor and former executive director of the Women’s Center of Rhode Island (