June 22, 2020 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors
I’ve posted a few pieces on the very dubious ways family court judges use their power. Many of those are of questionable constitutionality, but they’re seldom, if ever, challenged. Here’s such a case (Detroit Free Press, 9/19/19). It’s not a recent one, but it’s well worth mentioning.
Jonathan Vanderhagen had a son with a woman who goes unnamed in the article. A family court of course gave primary custody to her. But Vanderhagen complained. He filed an action to gain custody for himself claiming his ex was unfit to care for their son, Killian. He filed that in the court of Judge Rachel Rancilio although it was heard by a special master. Vanderhagen’s request was denied and, sometime later, Killian died in his ex’s care. She says she had nothing to do with his death. Vanderhagen disagrees.
Whatever the case, Vanderhagen posted to social media some harsh criticisms of the family court system, including Judge Rancilio. Even though none of what Vanderhagen posted was remotely threatening or abusive, Rancilio complained to the county sheriff who brought charges against Vanderhagen. He was arrested, posted the $1,000 bond and a no-contact order was issued against him.
Undeterred, Vanderhagen continued to criticize Judge Rancilio and the family court system on social media. Again, his messages were overtly non-threatening, promising only to dig up dirt on Rancilio, et al. Rancilio pronounced herself “scared.”
She testified that she found one post particularly threatening. It included a photo of Vanderhagen holding a shovel with Rancilio's initials on the handle and talked about him digging up "all the skeleton's in this court's closet."
Now, anyone reasonably conversant with English knows that message means finding discomfiting information about the individual in question. Not Rancilio.
“Rancilio told the jury that she thought Vanderhagen was going "to kill me and bury me after he was done."
The article linked to includes a photo of the judge. She looks easily young enough to have imbibed, in college the false notion that “the authorities” not only need to, but are empowered to, quash any and all speech that anyone says makes them feel uncomfortable. How Rancilio managed to square that with what she learned (or didn’t) in her Constitutional Law class, I’m not sure, but however she did so, she turned out to be right.
Another judge ordered Vanderhagen to jail on the charge of violating his no-contact order, where he remained until his trial two months later. Fortunately for him, our constitutional liberties and common sense, the jury that heard his case found him not guilty and took just 27 minutes to do so.
"I think that they saw through this case. I think what they saw the prosecution do to this man was wrong," said Vanderhagen's attorney, Nicholas Somberg. "And I asked in my closing to send a message and to not just come back not guilty, but to come back with a quick not guilty so the prosecutor would know that what they did to this man was wrong."
Somberg’s right. What the judicial system, including family and criminal courts and prosecutors, did was wrong, clearly wrong. But they did it anyway, and that’s very much the point. Vanderhagen spent two months in jail and who knows how much on his attorney, despite having clearly committed no legal wrong. By contrast, those who did wrong – Rancilio, the DA and others - will not suffer any sort of consequence for forcing an innocent man to spend two months in jail.
Not only did Jonathan Vanderhagen do nothing wrong, what he did was right. We want people to do exactly what he did – exercise his constitutional rights to attempt to draw attention to the wrongful behavior of public officials. We the People are, and are meant to be, an important curb on the power of government. If we roll over for the type of misconduct that occurred in Vanderhagen’s case, how will beneficial reform ever come about? It won’t. Vanderhagen is the hero of this story and Rancilio, et al are the villains.
But, as so often happens, the hero suffered and the villains walk free to abuse their power again.