ON TRIAL: FAMILY COURT- Divorce Courts are Causing Family Problems For Profit



Posted: 8/13/2006

'You have the power'

By its very nature, Family Court is an emotional venue


Darren Mack listens to his attorney Mark Wray during a probate hearing last week in Washoe District Court. Mack has been charged in the death of his wife, Charla Mack, and the shooting of Washoe District Family Court Judge Chuck Weller.

Workers appear on June 13 at the window of Judge Chuck Weller's chambers. The second pane from the left was shot out

Judge Chuck Weller discusses his shooting at a press conference at the National Judicial College in Reno on Tuesday, June 27, 2006.

Darren Mack

The Washoe District family court was created in the early 1990s to handle a variety of family matters, including divorce, guardianship, custody and support, adoptions, parental rights, domestic violence and juvenile offenders. At present, the family court is overseen by four district court judges, five court masters and three part-time masters.

Family Court Mission Statement: "To provide fair, efficient, accessible justice under the law, which encourages alternative and non-adversarial dispute resolution in a manner that serves the public and sustains confidence in the judicial branch of government."

Revised by Family Court Judges and Masters, Oct. 14, 2005

Shooting spurs debate over how well system is working, whether judges are accountable

The shooting of a judge handling the contentious divorce of a woman murdered that same morning is shining a spotlight on the region's family court system and on the judge.

Some praise Washoe District Family Court Judge Chuck Weller as a new judge doing a thankless, stressful and dangerous job in a highly emotional arena. The sniper-style shooting of Weller as he stood in his third-floor chambers has traumatized the community, they say, and hurts the independence of judges by creating fear and intimidation.

Others, including blog writers, say the family court needs an overhaul. Many say judges are not accountable and the system offers no remedies for people who feel they've been wronged.

Some complain that the commission in charge of punishing judges lacks the funds and backbone to be effective. In the past 10 years, the Commission on Judicial Discipline only ordered about 20 disciplinary actions on the 1,696 complaints it received.

The shooting even prompted one state legislator to seek a change in the way alimony is decided.

Darren Mack, a wealthy Reno pawnshop owner, has been charged with killing his estranged wife, Charla, on the morning of June 12 and then shooting Weller, who was deciding the couple's divorce. Mack was a vocal opponent of Weller's over the last year and an outspoken critic of the family court system.

Weller, in a recent interview, said he would like to talk about the Mack case, but can't because the files are sealed. He said he strives in all cases to find the best solutions for families and his fellow judges hold that same passion.

"There isn't anybody over there who doesn't want to do the right thing," Weller said, referring to the judges and masters in family court. "Nobody can be permitted to stop justice with a gun."

Washoe Family Court Chief Judge Frances Doherty said her court's mission is to help families resolve their disputes as quickly as possible so they can move forward with their lives.

"I tell people all the time that when you get a divorce, it's like being in a black tunnel where you can't see the light," she said. "But as we get through the issues, the tunnel gets shorter and shorter and you get through it."

But Bonnie Russell, a spokeswoman for a group called www.FamilyLawCourts.com, which calls the family court system a "divorce industry" that survives through the tragedy of others, said people are better off settling their disputes alone.

"People are getting killed," Russell said, referring to the violence seen in many families and divorce cases. "If you can, it's best to stay out of the courts. Your emotional health will be saved, and your bank account will be saved."

Mack critical of judge

Weller, 53, was working in his office when a shot or shots came through his window, striking him in the chest. The shooter had been positioned on the fifth floor of a parking garage two blocks away and disappeared just after firing, police said.

Weller survived the wounds -- the bullet shattered as it went through the window and he was hit with shrapnel -- but he has yet to return to the bench. Several hours after the shooting, police officers, working on a tip found Charla Mack's body in the garage of Darren Mack's townhouse.

Darren Mack, 45, became the subject of an international manhunt, and surrendered 11 days later in Mexico. He has been charged with the murder of Charla Mack and with the attempted murder of Weller.

Charla Mack had filed for divorce in February 2005, and Weller laid out a map for temporary custody and support three months later. Weller ordered Darren Mack to pay Charla Mack $10,000 per month "in interim spousal support," and $849 per month in child support.

Weller also ordered the two to share custody of their 8-year-old daughter on an week-on, week-off basis. During the school year, Weller said they were ordered to exchange the child at school. During the summer, the exchange had to occur on Monday mornings at the home of the parent acquiring custody for that week, he said.

And he told them to keep their distance from each other.

"The parent relinquishing custody shall drive and shall remain in the car during drop off," Weller said in the order. "The parent acquiring custody shall remain in the house during drop off."

Response to the order

In his order for child support, Weller cited Nevada's formula as his guideline: "A non-custodial parent shall pay 18 percent of his or her gross monthly income for the support of a minor child but not more than $849 per month per child."

Darren's gross monthly income was $44,000, Weller said, and at 18 percent, the monthly support would total $7,920. But since the statute sets limits, he ordered Darren to pay $849. Weller made Darren responsible for child support because Charla's income was zero, he said.

The next step was setting spousal support, which is different from deciding alimony, said Washoe District Family Court Judge David Hardy.

"The law distinguishes between predecree spousal support and postdecree alimony," he said.

While the Nevada Supreme Court has established some guidelines to help set alimony, they do not come into play until the divorce is final, he said. Before that point, judges decide spousal support and must follow Nevada's "community property" law which states that everything the couple owns and earns is split in half, Hardy said.

Judges must consider the household income before the separation and balance it with the expenses of two separate households to determine the spousal support during the interim period, he said.

"When we do these orders, we take a snapshot in time to allocate expenses and income during the divorce proceeding," Hardy said. "They are always susceptible to review and modification."

But when finalizing the divorce decree and setting up the alimony, Nevada law provides no formula for establishing the correct amount, and the Supreme Court rulings come into play, he said.

"It is one of the more delicate issues that cause disagreement when deciding a divorce," Hardy said. "But I don't know how it could be any other way. I don't know how a formula could reflect what is just and equitable."

In the 1974 case Buchanan v. Buchanan, which was expanded with another ruling in 2000, the court said judges should consider the couple's financial condition, the value of their property, the contribution each made to attain the property, how long they were married, the husband's income, and each person's age, health and ability to earn a living.

Then in a 1994 ruling Sprenger v. Sprenger, the court added the wife's career prior to marriage; the husband's education during marriage; the wife's marketability and ability to support herself; and whether she stayed home with the children.

Judges also consider the couple's previous standard of living, lifestyle and living expenses when deciding alimony.

In his challenge to Charla Mack's divorce complaint, Darren Mack said she was "capable of employment and earning money to assist her support." He acknowledged that she had been out of work for several years, and he said she may need support "for a reasonable period of time in order to enable her to appropriately return to full-time employment."

In her response, Charla Mack "denied that (she) is capable of employment and earning money to assist in her support," and "admits that (she) has been out of the work force for several years ... and is in need of spousal support."

In Weller's ruling in the pre-decree spousal support, he said it was up to the court to require either party pay the other "temporary maintenance and preliminary attorney's fees and costs."

Darren Mack had a substantial income, and Charla Mack had none, Weller said, so "the court is by this order requiring Darren to pay significant household expenses."

"On this basis, Darren shall pay Charla $10,000 per month in interim spousal support effective as of May 1, 2005," Weller said.

The couple's divorce decree was never finalized, so alimony was never decided.

Views on support orders

Weller's order for custody and support "seemed perfectly in line" with similar divorce rulings in other parts of the country, said Billie Lee Dunford-Jackson, co-director of the family violence department at the Reno-based National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

And in no way should any divorce order justify such a violent response, she said, referring to some who have said Weller brought it on himself.

Instead, she said the shooting was the act of a person wanting the upper hand.

"I'm not speaking to this case in particular, or second-guessing any judge's order, but I do know that a common trait of people who are perpetrators of domestic violence is that they're motivated by power and control," she said. "And when someone, like a judge, steps up and tries to take the power and control in the relationship, they often react strongly."

Bonnie Russell, with the Internet anti-court group, agreed, saying, "the judge did the right thing."

"Usually in these cases, the one who spends the most, wins," she said. "But in this case, (Mack) wasn't winning, and it pissed him off. So he decided to demonize the judge because he wasn't getting the result for all the money he spent."

But Paul Mozen, a spokesman for Nevadans for Equal Parenting, said Mack became involved in the group because he felt powerless in the courtroom.

"When Mack came to the meetings, he was convinced that (Weller) had made up his mind prior to coming to court," Mozen said. "He said he thought Weller didn't like him and no matter what he did, Weller would rule against him.

"He felt like he was getting screwed by the court."

Mack told the group that he had videotapes of his hearings and planned to use them to show how he was treated unfairly. But copies of those tapes kept at the courthouse are currently unavailable for public viewing. Mack's attorney at the time, Tim Lukas, filed a motion to seal the divorce files several days after Weller's custody and support order in May 2005.

In response to the high emotion generated by the Mack case, state Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, has submitted a bill draft request for the next legislative session that would require that any alimony order topping $5,000 must go to a peer review panel of three judges.

"It would require that a second pair of eyes takes a look at it, to make sure it's in line," said Washington, who said some of his constituents are fathers concerned about alimony and child support.

"We want to make sure that the award is not fraught with emotion, so we don't have another situation like Judge Weller."

Judges under fire

Darren Mack made no secret of his displeasure with Weller, and even met Washoe District Attorney Richard Gammick for lunch several times seeking help with his case. He also participated in meetings and blogs with others who were unhappy with family court in general and Weller in particular.

In his own defense, Weller said during a recent interview that when he ran for office, claims of unfairness in the court were an issue. Weller said then and reiterated recently that the court and the community needs to address concerns about how the court is deciding cases, but in order to do that, it first needs to conduct a study to determine the size of the problem.

"The answer today is we don't know," Weller said. "It's information we don't collect. Should we have numbers on how many TPOs (temporary protective orders) or child custody orders go to men and how many go to women? Yes. We need that to tell us what's going on."

Washoe County Bar Association President Rob Dotson said the "hostile postings" on the blogs shouldn't be given much weight because they usually are made by anonymous writers, and although people have a right to free speech, they don't have a right to defamation.

"The problem I see in anonymous postings on blogs is that the person making the postings is not held accountable for the truth of the statement as their identity is not known," Dotson said. "Therefore, in viewing such statements and deciding what weight, if any, should be given to them, I think the anonymity of the authors must be considered."

He said it's generally accepted that family court proceedings are contentious, and in most cases, one party is not satisfied with the result, so negative comments are expected. But the judges must make tough rulings, regardless of the criticism.

"In order for our justice system to operate effectively, it is critical that our judges retain independence," Dotson said. "In making their decisions, they must not be influenced by the identities of the parties, nor for that matter, fears for their own or anybody else's safety based upon the ruling they make."

Targets vary

While family court cases often end up emotional and sometimes volatile, the aggression usually is targeted against the other spouse and the spouse's attorney, not the court, said Judge Dale Koch, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

"The part of the case in Reno that was unique was that the person allegedly shot the judge," said Koch of Portland. "The part that was not unique was that the person allegedly killed the spouse.

"When one side believes they're not getting their way, they're angry, and some people really aren't able to cope with it. They feel they're losing control," he said. "It's scary to realize that's going on, and every one of the judges who do family court work realize they are potential targets.

"It's an unfortunate occupational hazard."

Mozen, with the equal parenting group, said one way to defuse some of the animosity in the system would be to infuse more oversight for judges.

"Judges have no accountability for their decisions," Mozen said. "If the judge doesn't like someone, who's there to look at it?"

And people in family court are able to make accusations without having to prove anything, he said. "It's a court of allegations," he said. "And the judge has to decide what the truth is."

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