At the request of our fearless leader, Chair Pam Kuzinar, three ISBA Family Law Section Council members ventured out on a cold Sunday afternoon in January to see the documentary “Divorce Corp.” I had been warned ahead of time that this documentary would be a brutal smack down on the family law justice system. Besides the five ISBA attorneys, there were only two other people in the theater, which also told me this movie was not a contender for an Academy Award. SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING NOW if you ever intend to see this movie. In addition, you better hurry as it is only in limited theaters and probably will not be there for long. My movie review gives it a “D.” But, it is a conversation starter.
The documentary was made and directed by Joseph Sorge following his own divorce and custody battles. It is narrated by Dr. Drew Pinsky and contains interviews by celebrity legal commentator Gloria Allred, T.V. Divorce Judge Lynn Toler, law professors, judges, attorneys, psychiatrists, investigators, and not surprisingly husbands, wives, and parents who have not been successful in family law courts. It is 93 minutes of repetitious assault on the family law justice system, which is depicted as corrupt, sleazy, and driven by the greed of attorneys, judges, and related expert evaluators. It does not single out Illinois or Cook County, but claims the family law courts are a complete disaster nationally, and that the entire family law justice system is broken beyond repair. The failure of the court system to provide for jury trials in family law cases and to appoint attorneys to represent the litigants if they cannot afford legal representation is decreed unconstitutional. Over and over again, the movie insists that money and greed are the driving forces of this $50 million a year divorce industry. The film alludes to lawyers, judges, and the court system as willing participants in a giant conspiracy aimed at defrauding families. It blames the system for allowing “simple” non-contested divorce cases to linger for years while racking up expensive legal fees averaging $50,000 a case. No actual statistics for these claims are provided.
The film paints all judges as having God complexes and making arbitrary decisions without protecting the constitutional rights of parents. Further, the judges and attorneys are accused of malicious prosecution of the parties simply for sport. The Court is labeled the ultimate marketer for this 50-million-dollar business. However, no mention is made of the Appellate Court’s powers of review, or that a violation of ethical rules will subject a judge to the Judicial Inquiry Board and an attorney to the ARDC. The “best interest of the child” standard is defined as who can scream the loudest, who has the most influence with the judge, or even which attorney has contributed the most to the judge’s campaign coffers. There are no substantive discussions of the relevant statutory factors of a custody evaluation or even case analysis to explain how a determination is made pursuant to the best interest of the child standard.
Interestingly, the film is silent on what, if any, responsibility should be attributed to the parties in divorce proceedings. Instead of the parties, it is the lawyers and judges that are blamed for the delay in resolution of cases and increased expenses as a result of the parties failing to agree on issues. Accordingly, it is the lawyers and judges who insist on a trial. What about a disgruntled spouse’s desire to use the divorce proceedings to needlessly harass and intimidate the other party and drain the martial estate in the process? In this film, the parties have no accountability for their actions. Further, the film does not address any alternatives to resolve problems when two parties cannot divide their marital assets and debts or when parents cannot decide how to co-parent their children. Divorce Corp does not acknowledge that only 2% of cases ever go to trial.
The film condemns the family law justice system but provides no solutions to the problems. Curiously, the film suggests that we look at the Scandinavian legal system where maintenance and custody trials are simply not allowed. There, the husband and wife and their respective priests or marriage therapists meet outside of court to work things out. However, what happens in Scandinavia if two parents cannot agree on custody and parenting issues? What happens in a long term marriage if a husband or wife has not worked during the marriage and has stayed home to care for the parties’ children? What happens if there isn’t money or retirement savings left to split? What happens when one spouse cannot get a job? Again, no actual facts or statistics as to the Scandinavian system are provided.
The family law justice system is not perfect, but there are extraordinary family law attorneys and judges of the highest integrity and legal expertise who assist families to successfully move forward following a divorce. None of these individuals were interviewed. I will acknowledge that there are a few “bad apples” in any profession. This film highlights several “bad apples” including the tale of an unscrupulous 604(b) evaluator by day and porn star at night who offers to fix an evaluation for $7,500. In addition, the film includes the disturbing film clip of the Texas family law court Judge William Adams who viciously beat his own child and still remains on the bench today. Another story is the poor father jailed for threatening a judge after he lost custody of his children. The film does not discuss the father’s failure to agree on custody and that presumably a trial with witnesses and evidence occurred, but focuses solely on the father’s perceptions of a mean spirited bad judge out for spite to block his rights to be a father. Once again, Divorce Corp only tells one side of the story. Of course, if both sides were told, there probably wouldn’t be a movie. The film blames the failure to reform these perceived atrocities again on the corrupt, sleazy and driven-by-greed attorneys, judges, and expert evaluators. We can all agree that these scenarios cannot be tolerated and that statutory safeguards must be in place.
U.S. statistics do confirm that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In addition, in the last 25 years, the number of parentage actions has increased dramatically. There are no compatibility tests, financial disclosure forms, or psychological tests required for people to pass before getting married or engaging in a sexual relationship, but there are emotional, financial and social repercussions when the relationship ends. Often a party does not understand the realities post relationship. Expenses have increased and incomes may not support the expenses of two households. While each parent may want the children to live 100% with him or her, it is currently impossible to clone children. If the parties insist on a custody fight, someone will be unhappy with the outcome and both will be upset about the cost of litigation. The family law attorney must educate the client on the divorce process and timeline, provide reasonable expectations, and continually strive to manage the client’s expectations. Alternative dispute resolution, mediation, arbitration, and the collaborative law process must be considered at all appropriate phases of a case. It does not have to take years to finalize a divorce proceeding if the parties can responsibly agree to resolve it. Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise were divorced in 11 days. Our system is not perfect and can always be improved.
What most depressed me about this movie is the realization that the general public believes that the family law system is broken and that the failure to fix this system is the result of corrupt, sleazy, greedy attorneys, judges, and expert evaluators. Changing the public perception of our legal profession is a true battle which cannot be won overnight. However, Jackie Birnbaum wisely reminded me that every attorney or judge has the ability to make a difference for families and children one case at a time. Thank you to the many hardworking, ethical, professional attorneys and judges who specialize in the family law sector and work really hard to make a difference for a family going through the trauma of a divorce. ■