Moving to take advantage of what it considers an improved political climate as a result of the attempted assassination of a family court judge, a group called Nevadans for Equal Parenting will be asking for appointment of a county “family court advisory committee.”
The organization may also try to amend state law on custody and child support in the 2007 Nevada Legislature.
“I think we all agree that there’s something wrong with the family court,” said state legislative candidate Paul Mozen, who chaired a meeting of NEP last week at the Sparks library.
“I think the entire country knows that now,” added Randi Thompson, also running for the legislature. She volunteered to help publicize the group’s stance on the advisory committee.
Without prompting, Mozen denied NEP’s reputation as a father’s rights group, pointing out that three of the 10 people in attendance were women. He called it a “family law reform group.”
NEP members called for the advisory committee because they believe that it will help get public input into the court system. Some members said the county committee is already required, but the judges have blocked it—”We’re above the law” is the way member Mike Nance characterized their attitude.
The group also discussed seeking changes in the state statute (Nevada Revised Statute 125.490) that declares joint custody to be in the interest of the child. Right now, it reads: “There is a presumption, affecting the burden of proof, that joint custody would be in the best interest of a minor child if the parents have agreed to an award of joint custody or so agree in open court at a hearing for the purpose of determining the custody of the minor child or children of the marriage.” NEP wants the words italicized here removed from the law, apparently believing that they give judges too much latitude. “If we start with the presumption of joint custody, there’s one thing off the table,” Mozen said, arguing that more or less automatic joint custody will reduce the bitterness in divorce cases.
The group also believes another state law that creates a formula for child support should be based on the parent’s net income, not “gross annual income”—the language of the current law (N.R.S. 125b.070). Members of NEP argued that the parent never sees some of that gross income, so the formula should be based on net.
The belief in the group that the attempt on Chuck Weller’s life has strengthened their political position was very pronounced. “I know the Darren Mack situation isn’t ideal, but you’ve got the attention of the community now,” Randi Thompson said. Mack is accused of killing his estranged wife, Charla Mack, and of shooting Weller.
“With the Darren Mack thing, I think the inertia is toward reforming the courts,” said Mozen. “We got Maurice [Washoe County Sen. Maurice Washington], and I believe we’ll get some on the Assembly side, too,” Mozen added.
Mozen and Thompson said that in previous legislatures, Washoe County Assemblymember Bernie Anderson was an obstacle to what they call “reform.” (Thompson is running against Anderson after losing to him in 2004.) She said, “[Anderson] got this law that you guys want and turned it over to the trial lawyers to rewrite it.”
Contacted for a response, Anderson said, “I don’t turn legislation over to the trial lawyers. Actually, the trial lawyers don’t really play in this field.” He said that his experience with NEP was that they were discourteous and intolerant toward their opponents and that they’re not politically savvy. “They’re their own worst enemy. I don’t think they read the system very well.”
Lawyers contacted said family court is not a big money maker for attorneys, but NEP members at the meeting seemed to believe that (as Thompson put it) “the golden pot” is at stake for lawyers in family disputes.
One person in attendance, Rod Opserman, disagreed with the notion that the Weller shooting aided the NEP’s agenda.
NEP members offered various justifications for Mack’s alleged actions against Charla Mack and Weller. At one point, various people started a round robin dialogue describing ways Mack tried to bring public attention to his grievances before allegedly taking extreme action: “He was going to Channel 4, Channel 8—” one person began, and another person then added, “He went to Dick Gammick,” and a third person said, “He came here.” Thompson said, “It’s not like he didn’t try to elevate the issue.”
No one suggested that Mack might also have had the option of accepting Weller’s decisions, though some said they disagreed with Mack’s suspected actions. Mack attended at least one meeting of NEP, according to members.
Nance compared Mack to John Brown, who in 1859 attacked a federal arsenal in Virginia at the start of what Brown hoped would be a war to free slaves. Nance said, “Herman Melville called him the meteor of the war. Maybe this guy [Mack] is the meteor of the war.”
Garrett Idle, who presided at the meeting until Mozen’s arrival, said he is a close friend of Mack’s. “I’m in the inner circle of three. That’s what [Darren Mack defense lawyer] Scott Freeman told me.” Idle said that on the day of the shootings, “I called [Mack] about half an hour after the judge’s shooting. He said, ‘I’m busy right now, let me call you back.’ … He thought his was the way to change the system. I don’t agree.”
The belief that the Weller shooting has redounded to the benefit of family court critics is less accepted in political circles. Most political consultants and analysts believe that as a result of the shooting and Mack’s identification with family court critics, no politician will want to be identified with his viewpoint and that the public isn’t interested in hearing that viewpoint, reinforcing those who believe the family law system generally works well for most of those who come before it. One analyst said that in the present climate, any who identify themselves or their organizations with Mack or his viewpoint do so at their peril.
“There is certainly going to be some feeling that the position of women in family court needs to be strengthened,” political scientist Richard Siegel said. “You could argue that the status quo is strengthened. Violence is hardly ever received well by the public, so on balance I would think [the attack on Weller] works against them and in favor of the status quo.”