Steven Hitner spearheaded the most far-reaching alimony reform bill in Massachusetts in memory. Amazingly, his organization, Massachusetts Alimony Reform, got the bill passed by a unanimous vote of both houses of the Bay State Legislature. As such, he is uniquely well-placed to advise on how to change existing state law. The National Parents Organization is proud to have Hitner as part of our team in our efforts to reform family laws across the country. Here is Hitner’s “how to” on creating legislative change. — Robert Franklin
Trouble in the Village: A Guide to Changing Law
May 28, 2015 by Steven K. Hitner, Consultant, National Parents Organization
What does “Trouble in the Village” mean and how does it relate to changing existing law? The answer is simple — legislators do not act unless they have “Trouble in their Village.”
The secret to changing an existing law is proving that there is a problem. In most cases office-holders will not acknowledge that a problem exists. Your job is to dig up the bodies. In other words, find and expose the evidence of the need for family law reform.
The following are the steps necessary to accomplish legislative reform. When I took on alimony reform in Massachusetts, I was told “it’ll never happen.” Well, I proved them wrong. Not only did I make possible the most dramatic social policy change in decades, I did it with a unanimous vote from both houses of the legislature.
Now, let’s get to work. Here’s what you need to begin:
- You need horror stories.
- You need a website.
- You need a dedicated leader.
- You need abook of evidence showing the problem.
- You need an angel in the media.
- You need an angel in the legislature.
- You need an “evil” person or group as an adversary.
- You need credible victims who will share their situation with the media.
- You need second spouses (wives) and women who do not want to become second spouses to tell their stories.
- You will need money!
The Website: This will become your attractant to find the villagers to create the grass roots movement. They will Google “Shared Parenting” or “Alimony” or “Family Court Reform” and your website will come up. The website will also be an informational source to give legitimacy to your effort.
A Newsletter: A periodic newsletter with compelling stories and information about the law you are trying to change is a must. This newsletter will make you the authority and give you great credibility. You will need this to keep people’s interest and to raise money.
The Media: You need to make their job easy. Coach anyone being interviewed before the interview. Make sure they do not blame the lawyers, the judges, or anyone else. They must always blame the law. They must emphasize the positives about how things will change for the better with the reform you’re promoting.
Press Releases: You will need to announce the creation of your group in the press. Also, any horror stories should be sent to the press, including radio and television. And of course all successes you have must be announced via press releases.
Talk Radio: Get on as many talk radio shows as you can. This is easy. Seize on any news topic that deals with your issue (like shared parenting) and send out a media mailer announcing your availability to speak on the air. Many talk show programs will jump at the chance. Once on the air, promote your group by name and website.
The Horror Stories: These are critical to proving your case, but beware. If the stories are not factual you will lose credibility. Fact check everyone. Trust but verify!
Credibility is a must: You must be sure that everyone who represents your organization is credible, doesn’t exaggerate and is not critical of lawyers, judges or ex-spouses. Always be fact-based, calm, rational and emphasize the positive.
The Bill: You need to study the existing law and craft a solution to the current problems. Have a lawyer put your solution in the form of a bill that you will convince your legislator to introduce at the proper time. The purpose of your bill is to get into the “Ball Park.” Once there, you will need to learn how the game is played.
The Legislature: The Legislature will only act if it is proved to them that there is, “Trouble in the Village”. When visiting legislators, I heard many say, “I understand the problem, but nothing ever gets done around here.” But “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” If there’s a problem, a persistent organization can accomplish change. Typically, that means one of two things — hiring a lobbyist or bringing your grassroots movement to bear on legislators.
Lobbyist: Some reform movements have raised a lot of money and hired a paid registered lobbyist. This can help, but what can be far more effective and cheaper is 500 — 1000 constituents educating their legislators and asking for their help. Without a registered lobbyist, I was able to get a unanimous vote from the Judiciary Committee, the House and the Senate to pass alimony reform.
A Task Force: Your goal is to get media attention in your favor so that the legislative committee appoints a “Task Force” with all the interested parties on it. Most importantly, you must insist that you be appointed as one of the participants.Bring a friendly lawyer with you to represent your group. He will keep them honest. Other participants will be lawyers representing the bar association, legislators and probably opponents of the effort. Your job will be as an informational source, advocate for the victims and provider of the evidence.
A law written by an appointed Task Force will most certainly be passed, provided that all participants get their respective organizations to endorse it.You must get a commitment from the group representatives that they will convince their organizations to come out in support of the final product.
The Book: The book will have the existing law, the new law, horror stories, media attention, studies, history of the issue you’re working on and anything else you can find of interest. It must be professional and informative.Use the MAR (Massachusetts Alimony Reform) Book as a guide.
The Evil Opposition: You probably will have opposition from bar associations who will say that the situations you are talking about do not exist. That is when you pull out your book with the evidence. The media will want to know why the lawyers are against reform. Your answer will be “I can‘t understand why”. Let the media make them the bad guys. The media will be more willing to feature your subject if they can find a villain.
Your Group: You will need to register with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)4 tax exempt entity or a 501(c)3. I advise you check with a CPA to verify and do the proper paper work. Elect a president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer. It is also a good idea to have a small Board of Directors to use as a sounding board and to help with all the work. In the beginning you will have meetings to hear all the horror stories. After your bill has a number, the work begins.
Education is Key:You will need to have meetings around your state educating the victims on how to tell their stories. It will be their job to educate their legislators on the need for a change in the law. They will not know how to approach their legislators unless you teach them.
- Find out where the legislator is having an event.
- Go to the event with a small donation.
- Tell the legislator the victim’s story and how the existing law is harming their family and themselves.
- Explain what part of the existing law is in need of reform, and how the new law will fix the problem.
- Have a neighbor, a relative a parent and anyone else they can recruit to approach the legislator with a similar story.
- It will only take 3 or 4 people to tell their stories and the legislator will realize that there is “Trouble in their Village”.
- Ask for the legislator to support the bill.
- Monitor all the legislators as to whether they are a Major Sponsor, Co-Sponsor, in favor or against. You need to know your enemies!
- The legislators will not want to talk to you, but they will always talk to one of their constituents.
Bar Associations: You must attend their seminars concerning divorce law, parenting time, etc. This will teach you how they think. Learn the walk, the talk and the rules. It is highly unlikely that you will get any law reform without the backing or approval of the bar associations.
The state and local bars will most certainly be against any kind of reform, especially the women’s bar. They will say that a cookie cutter approach will not work. They will say that the non-working spouse (usually a female) can never regain her earning potential after being a stay at home mom for so many years. They will say the system works just fine the way it is. My experience taught me the following:
- The lawyers are afraid to challenge the status quo for fear of upsetting the judges.
- They will deny that the problems exist.
- Your argument is going to be this:
The same fact pattern will have a different outcome from different judges;
There should be consistency and predictability from one court to another;
Therefore, guidelines and structure, with a judge being able to deviate for special situations, would bring consistency and predictability;
You will be surprised by their reaction and answers. I have found that most judges want more guidelines and structure and that many lawyers are afraid to alienate the judges. When you are all in a room as equals and you are the deliverer of the evidence and they are the keepers of the status quo, they will begin to submit.
The Judges:Most will do what they want. Some will rule by the new law, some will ignore it and tell litigants to appeal if they are not happy. I asked a judge at a bar association meeting the following question: “Based on your experience on the bench, would you welcome guidelines and structure with the ability to use your judicial discretion for outlying cases? Or would you like the system to continue the way it is with no consistency or predictability? There was a hush in the room of several hundred Lawyers. The judge replied: “Based on what is going on in the Family Law courts, I would prefer to have more guidelines and structure. It would make my job much easier and people would have an idea ahead of time as to the probability of their outcomes. The lawyers in the room were shocked.
Be Approachable: It is extremely important that you are available 24/7 by phone and by e-mail. In order to grow the group you want to talk to anyone who joins. Listen to their “Horror Story” and ask them if they will go public. Eventually you will become the “go to” person for the media and anyone else interested.
Money: You will need money to fund the effort. The money will go for press releases, the web site, meeting expenses, phone, gas, tolls, etc. Get a Pay Pal Account so that people can donate from your web site.
Time: It took me 8 years to change the law. You must be patient and persistent. Never let up.
Advice: Never, never, never blame the lawyers, the judges, the legislators, or the ex-spouses. Always blame the law. It is antiquated and draconian. It is the job of the legislators to fix it.Stephen K. Hitner
National Parents Organization, Consultant
President, Mass Alimony Reform
Member, 2011 Alimony Reform Task Force
For more information or assistance, contact the National Parents Organization by telephone at 617.542.9300 or email at [email protected]