Where do you turn and to whom do you ask for help when you experience litigation abuse and/or judicial misconduct?
This was an excellent question from one of my readers. Unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the judicial misconduct in her state as well as the absence of effective domestic violence resources.
My first reaction was that this reader’s friend was an extraordinarily lucky person because she is not alone. Too many of us are when we come face-to-face with Barbara Bentley’s description of the criminal “justice” system:
The criminal justice system is just that. It’s justice for the criminal. The victim is just a minor inconvenience.
Step One: Cut Your Losses
In A Dance with the Devil, Ms. Bentley describes how she did the smartest thing anyone in this situation can do: she disengaged. In other words, she severed the emotional connection in her heart with her estranged husband. Yes, I know. This is exceedingly difficult to do. Been there. It is extraordinarily difficult to walk away from a crazy-making abusive relationship ~ especially after we’ve invested significant emotional energy in trying to make it work. Ms. Bentley had invested heavily financially as well. Me too.
Yet, as my former mother-in-law frequently advised, it isn’t smart to “put good money after bad.” At some point, we have to cut our losses. If we don’t, we’ll end up bankrupt in every way possible ~ emotionally, spiritually, and financially.
Litigation abuse has two players. We can be so invested in responding and reacting to abuse from a pit bull that we loose all sense that we can exert control over the situation. Set your own rules. Play your own game. And, sometimes the smartest thing to do is to just stop fighting. Walk away.
I can hear you gasp. Walk away? Yes. Walk away. Yes, I know. You’ve invested heavily. You want to reap the rewards of that investment. I hear you. Been there too.
During law school, I had a front row seat to a divorce trial that would make the War of the Roses look like a good time. The spouses refused to disengage. Their attorneys made a fortune. The couple’s $1.7 million fortune and 17 room mansion on Lake Michigan went to pay attorney’s fees. He blamed her. She blamed him. Truth be told, they both played a role.
Tina Turner, on the other hand, made the courageous decision to walk away. Yes, it cost her millions. But, instead of wasting her time in a futile and expensive court battle, she invested her time wisely rebuilding her career. Ms. Turner knew that nobody wins a win-lose game. Both parties inevitably end up losing big. So, she took control of her destiny and moved forward with her life. By not fighting, she won. Ike lost.
Step Two: Surround Yourself with Surviving Sisters
Vernetta Cockerham’s case went to the North Carolina appellate court twice before she got to have a trial date. But, she ultimately prevailed because Rita Anita Linger packed the court room with domestic violence survivors wearing purple and white ribbons. It intimidated the police department that failed to protect Vernetta and her daughter into settling for $430,000.
This strategy is extraordinarly effective, but it takes lots of planning, publicizing, and persuading to achieve. You’ll be asking people to commit an inordinate amount of time away from their own priorities. So, pick your battle wisely. It is easier if you can secure a commitment from your local domestic violence shelter or house of worship or established court watch group. It is easier if you have an exceptionally large family who will back you up. But, most of us don’t have those resources or support.
So, my suggestion is that you talk it up with women who are walking in your shoes: your surviving sisters. You may think you don’t know any. You do. They just aren’t talking. Pour some wine. Start the conversation. You’ll be shocked at what you hear. Make a commitment to be there for each other. (See step four for an alternative approach.)
Step Three: The Write Stuff
Journals are marvelous tools for jettisoning emotions so that we can clear our heads. This is where you do your “ugly cry” and vent. You can not afford to whine in public. People who can help you will not respond positively to “poor me” control dramas. The only people who will listen to you are enablers who will keep you stuck in the past. This is not healthy. And, your whining will alert brutes that there’s a victim in the neighborhood. Your whining will send signals to overworked bureaucrats that you are someone who is easily dismissed or ignored.
As women, we frequently wail that men need to find their feminine side. Well, we women would be smart to cultivate our masculine sides too. I’m not talking about being aggressive. There’s power in taking control of our lives and making wise choices for our futures. We’re more attractive after we’ve learned to rescue ourselves.
Step Four: Establish Your Credibility and Speak Truth to Power
It costs absolutely nothing to start a WordPress blog. Examiner.com pays people to examine issues. It’s not much, but it would be a great way to have your voice heard in your community. It’s an easy way to develop expertise, credibility, and persuasive writing skills. You can launch trial balloons and see which way they fly. It may take several months, but you will eventually discover that you have lots of sister survivors who are looking for someone to take the lead. These people may become your base camp for court watch and court packing.
Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper when one of their articles exposes an injustice. Again, don’t rant and whine. Be brief and persuasive. Why should people in your community care? Politicians read these letters. It is the first step in change.
When you have established your credibility as an advocate, you can submit an op-ed piece and ask for it to be published. An op-ed piece is an editorial written by readers of a publication rather than the editorial staff. Ask your friends and colleagues to read what you have written to make sure your voice is clear and persuasive. It will probably take you a couple of days to write something that grabs people’s attention. But, it will be well worth your time because this is what legislative aides read to get a sense of the work they need to do.
Eve Ensler’s “The Terminator Is Back” for the Huffington Post is an excellent example of a blog op-ed. As you can see, blogs are more edgy than print media. While my writing is a far cry from Ms. Ensler’s expertise, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published my op-ed piece on the first anniversary of the day Crystal Judson Brame was fatally shot by her estranged husband, Tacoma, WA’s chief of police.
Step Five: Talk to the Presiding Judge
Every court system has a boss called the presiding judge. Some are more open to talking with the general public than others. They won’t talk to you about your case, but some may agree to a meeting with a small group of concerned citizens and/or executives or advocates from your local domestic violence agency. Alternatively, your advocate on the prosecutor’s staff might arrange the meeting if a pattern and practice of litigation abuse and/or judicial misconduct has been established. Address the judge as “your honor.” Wear business attire. Present your case clearly and concisely ~ 30 seconds or less. Be prepared. Many court systems are not aware of judicial training available via the Family Violence Prevention Fund.
Step Six: Judicial Selection Process, Court Watch, and Court Reform
Every jurisdiction has a judicial selection process. Typically, local bar associations hold a lot of sway over who becomes a judge. Some may entertain input from you. If they won’t, you can start your own court watch group. This is where having a following on a blog is helpful.
Since I’ve worked on both sides of the bench, I know that people who don’t prevail often feel they have experienced injustice. Sometimes this is true. Some judges are diligent and well-informed. Some aren’t. Some aspire to the bench because they have a strong sense of social justice. Some discover it’s tough to practice law with a hangover and decide to hide their substance abuse problems beneath their judicial robes. Some respect their life partners. Some are abusive behind closed doors. Some work hard. Some wish you’d shut up already so they can hit the golf course or have an “afternoon delight” with their lover. Sometimes victory turns on whether one party is better prepared than the other. And, sometimes we flat out are on the wrong side of the law and need somebody to give us a wake-up call.
A growing trend is to establish “family justice” courts. In these jurisdictions, all cases involving domestic violence allegations are heard by the same judge. The judicial system is slow to recognize litigation abuse when one judge hears the criminal complaints, another judge hears the divorce matters, and a third judge handles custody disputes. Many judges are clueless about domestic violence issues. But, when one well-informed judge hears all these matters, the pattern emerges quickly. Still, as Barbara Bentley discovered, even a savvy judge can have a tough time setting boundaries for some determined pit bull abusers.
Change happens when one of us gets stomped on and sufficiently angry to shout “enough already!”