May 8, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Despite the dogged efforts of the Nebraska Court Administrator, we will soon know how that state’s family court judges are trained regarding child custody and parenting time issues. We will know who has been asked to train those judges and the content of that training. The state’s highest court has ruled that those materials are subject to the Public Records Act and must be disclosed to the public.
For some years now I’ve been inveighing against the secrecy that shrouds the training of judges in child custody matters. It has always seemed clear to me that those judges don’t know the basics of children’s well-being as it’s affected by the custody and parenting time orders they make. Put simply, they say they’re acting in the children’s best interests, but they don’t know what promotes it. If those judges were truly acting in the interests of the children of the litigants in their courts, they’d order shared parenting a lot more often than they do. Indeed, it would be the default order in just about every court.
Shared parenting advocate Dr. Les Veskrna apparently thought much the same thing. So he asked the State Court Administrator, Corey Steel for
all records in any form, including PowerPoint presentations, handouts, notes, video and audio recordings, correspondence, memoranda, email and other communications, regarding judicial education programs since July 1, 2012 on child custody and parenting time. This request includes records, including email and other communications, regarding the selection of presenters, how those presenters were selected, contracts with presenters and other outside parties, and all training materials.
Veskrna’s request was made pursuant to the Nebraska Public Records Act that makes clear the legislature’s intention that the public has the right to know what its public servants are up to. There are 20 narrow and obvious exceptions, but the law’s gist is undeniable.
Despite that, Steel refused to produce a single requested record. He based his decision on possibly the strangest claim imaginable. It seems that he and one other person, Carole McMahon-Boies, who is the administrator of the Judicial Branch Education (JBE), had a “tacit agreement,” between themselves and only themselves, that the materials sought by Veskrna were exceptions to the Public Records Act. This agreement was nowhere written down and we have only Steel and McMahon-Boies’s word for it that any such agreement has ever existed.
The trial court and now the state Supreme Court both tossed that argument aside. The notion that two people could negate the public’s right to know that’s established by a statute passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor is truly too absurd to give much time to.
That said, it may not be as absurd as Steel’s next claim. He claimed that a law allowing the Committee on Judicial Branch Education to promulgate rules regarding the confidentiality of JBE records in fact exempted the requested records despite the fact that the JBE had never created any such rules. And, having never done so, the non-existent rules couldn’t be reviewed by the Supreme Court to make sure they passed statutory and constitutional muster.
Needless to say, that claim by Steel too was chucked into the round file by the Supreme Court.
His final argument – that the legislature’s passage of the Public Records Act would violate the principle of separation of powers if applied in this case to the judicial training records – was slightly better than his previous too, but only slightly. It, like the others, was given short shrift by both courts.
If each branch of government could shield its records simply by appealing to the fact that they were created in the course of any number of essential branch functions, the protections of the public interest embodied in the public records statutes would be a nullity.
Yes, that’s about the size of it.
Both the trial court and the Supreme Court ruled correctly. They also ordered Steel to pay Veskrna’s attorney’s fees, a sure sign they’re less than impressed with his arguments. Plus, the court’s opinion was a “per curiam” one. That is, all the justices agreed with the decision and there was little or no dispute about the outcome. Call it a slam-dunk win for Veskrna.
More importantly, call it a win for the people of Nebraska who now get to know how their judges ruling on child custody and parenting time cases are trained. My guess is that we already have a very good idea about that topic. My guess is that judges are trained, not in the mainstream science of the matter, but by fringe elements who just happen to agree with domestic violence advocates in the state and those opposed to fathers having contact with their kids.
Whatever the case though, we’ll soon find out. And when we do, shared parenting advocates in Nebraska will be in a position to demand proper training, i.e. the type that reflects the science on children’s welfare as it relates to contact with both parents.
And that will be a huge step toward making shared parenting the rule in Nebraska.
Well done Dr. Veskrna!
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
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.