The proponents of family law reform in North Dakota are having an impact. After ballot measure efforts in 2006 and 2014 aimed at changing divorce and custody laws managed to get around 40 percent of the vote, the state’s lawyers are taking action to get ahead of the curve.
A task force created by the State Bar Association of North Dakota will convene in November to address ways in which laws governing divorce and child custody can be reformed. The letter sent out to task force members by SBAND President Joseph Wetch, shared with me by one of the invited members, states that the effort is a direct response to the 2014 Measure 6 campaign.
The activists behind the 2006 and 2014 campaigns have good reason to be skeptical of what this group might actually be trying to accomplish. The bar association spent tens of thousands of dollars to oppose both campaigns and resorted to belittling proponents of the measures with pejoratives like “mad dads” or “deadbeat dads.”
When not hurling insults, the lawyers argued that the measures were unnecessary because the state’s existing laws were fair.
A more objective observer might argue that the legal industry is protecting a status quo that is extremely lucrative to them, in that it leaves room for copious litigation between warring couples, and thus a rich harvest of billable hours.
But the fact that SBAND is being forced to at least acknowledge that there may be room for reforms is progress. They were admitting no such thing previously.
Both ballot measure campaigns may have failed, but the volunteer, citizen-driven efforts won enough votes against a neatly orchestrated and well-funded opposition to get some respect.
That’s far from a victory, but the reformers are moving the needle. And it’s a needle that very much needs to be moved. Under current laws the scales of justice have a decided cant to them away from non-custodial parents.
For example, the state will move mountains to enforce child support obligations. Non-payers can have their wages garnished, their tax refunds seized and their hunting and fishing licenses pulled.
Non-payers can see their names listed on an official website as though they were sex offenders. They can even have their driver's licenses taken away and be put in jail, as if that will help them make their payments. And it doesn’t matter why the payments aren’t happening.
Did you lose your job? Did you get cancer and wind up in the hospital? It doesn’t matter.
The custodial parent need not lift a finger to get that enforcement. It happens automatically.
While some of the enforcement measures may be dubious, parents should support their children. But shouldn’t the obligations and responsibilities cut both ways?
Try getting the state to enforce court-mandated visitation time. If a custodial parent chooses, he or she can inhibit or even outright deny visitation time almost with impunity. The only recourse a non-custodial parent has is to pay an attorney and go to court where their relief might hinge on which judge is assigned the case and what mood he or she is in that day.
If you think that sounds unfair, it is, and yet thousands of responsible parents are in that situation right now.
That’s just one example of the need for reform.
And speaking of reform, we ought to consider reforming the group that has been opposing these ballot measures. North Dakota has what’s called a combined bar, which handles both the regulation of the legal industry -- licensing the lawyers and disciplining them when they go astray -- and the public advocacy for that industry.
During the 2014 campaign the SBAND actually used dues money -- payments required of lawyers by state law in order for them to maintain their license to practice -- to pay for their political activities against Measure 6.
Ultimately the group was forced to refund money to their members, but that’s not enough. Official regulatory functions and private advocacy should not mix.
If the lawyers want to fight family law reform to protect their profits, fine, but they shouldn’t get to co-opt official regulatory authority to win those battles.
by Sabrina Hornung
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