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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

January 20, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In Nebraska, the forces supporting shared parenting continue to make progress. Nebraska has long been a redoubt of the strongest, most intelligent, mature and effective pro-shared parenting movement in the country. Don’t look for them to dress up in superhero costumes and climb on top of the courthouse any time soon. No, they just work continually in the legislature, the courts and the news media to bring about reform of family laws and courts that would benefit every Nebraskan and relieve the pressure on the public treasury.

So it comes as no surprise, but with considerable rejoicing that a state court judge recently ruled that the public has a right to know how its family court judges are trained with regard to child custody and parenting time. Read about it here (Omaha World Herald, 1/19/16).

Veteran shared parenting advocate, Dr. Les Veskrna filed suit against the Court Administrator, Corey Steel, when Steel rejected his Nebraska Public Records Act request for records on the training received by family court judges. Steel’s remarkable claim was that training materials provided by organizations that train judges, in some way become part of a judge’s decision-making process in individual cases. How something that obviously public could later become private I have yet to figure out.

Judge Susan Strong apparently had the same problem. Out of 12 documents requested by Veskrna, Strong agreed with Steel about only one of them. That document - an email by a particular judge about a particular case – is clearly trivial compared to the volumes of training materials with which the State of Nebraska trains its family court judges.

Judicial education is closely intertwined with the deliberative process that all judges go through to decide cases, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bartel argued on behalf of the courts. Lifting the veil on that deliberative process could result in harm to an independent judiciary, he added.

But Omaha attorney Steve Grasz said the records that his client requested did not amount to a judge’s notes or other documents produced in chambers. Rather, they are the types of records that provide transparency and permit citizens to maintain some general oversight of how the court system operates, he argued.

Strong’s ruling said it depends upon the individual record whether it should be confidential or open. But she ruled against State Court Administrator Corey Steel, who took the position that none of the administrative records were public.

“The inherent power of the court ... may exempt from disclosure certain documents when the value of disclosure is outweighed by the need to maintain confidentiality, but not all judicial records can be exempt,” Strong wrote in her order.

The judge reviewed the 12 records requested by Veskrna. She ordered the court administrator to release all of the records with the exception of one email from a judge concerning “a substantive area of the law” upon which the judge routinely rules.

Strong’s ruling comes against a backdrop of Nebraska law that clearly indicates a preference in favor of the public’s right to know what state employees are up to. Indeed, the Nebraska Attorney General has called the state’s open records statutes broad in scope and said that

Under this statute, it was intended that all public records of the state, its counties, and its other political subdivisions should be open to inspection, except where the Legislature has otherwise provided that the record shall be confidential.

Needless to say, no law has ever stated that judicial training materials are confidential. So Steel’s blanket rejection of Veskrna’s request has always been wrong on its face. Now there’s a judicial ruling saying so.

That Steel would resist such an obviously appropriate request for public records indicates just how desperate the anti-shared parenting crowd is. As I’ve detailed before, those who oppose children having real relationships with their father have tried every trick in the book, and all have backfired.

The ploy to study child custody and parenting time in the state was meant to derail a shared parenting bill. It succeeded, but in the meantime produced a large body of evidence that only made the case for shared parenting stronger. (More about that tomorrow.) The state bar association did everything but commit suicide in its headlong opposition to shared parenting. Its blatantly illegal lobbying of the legislature resulted in its powers being drastically cut and its fees reduced by about two-thirds.

Now there’s the Steel debacle. Judge Strong’s ruling will probably be appealed, but it’s hard to see it being overruled. So, soon enough, Veskrna will have his documents and the whole world will be able to review who’s teaching Nebraska family court judges what about child custody and parenting time. That should prove both enlightening and entertaining in the extreme. I, for one, can hardly wait.

I’ve opined many times about that very topic. How, I wondered, can judges continue to effectively remove fathers from children’s lives when the social science on shared parenting is so clear? For example, Canadian researcher Paul Millar has said this of the theory that single parenting post-divorce is the appropriate arrangement for kids:

[It] is not only unsupported by evidence, but, worse, appears to promote harmful outcomes for children through the legal support given the destruction of one of the important parental relationships for the child.

Are Nebraska’s family court judges being taught differently? We don’t yet know, but the data on their child custody and parenting time decisions strongly suggests they are. The same conclusion is urged by the fact that, less than two years ago, Dr. Linda Nielsen was invited to speak at a judicial training seminar in the state. Nielsen of course is one of our country’s foremost authorities on shared parenting and an avid supporter thereof. Many were surprised at the invitation extended her, but were more surprised when it was rescinded. Budgetary issues were cited as the reason for the unprecedented dis-invitation, but when Nielsen volunteered to travel to Nebraska and conduct the seminar on her own nickel, that too was rejected.

As I said, the anti-shared parenting crowd is desperate.

The scientific support for shared parenting is overwhelming, but if judges aren’t receiving the information, we can scarcely blame them for not following its dictates. And follow them, they don’t. That’ll be the theme of my post for tomorrow.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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