Category: Family Law

A Tribute to Marc Poirier

marc-poirier-176x220I want to mark the passing of a former colleague of mine, Seton Hall’s Marc Poirier. Marc was an exceptional scholar, teacher, and colleague.

Marc was a deeply learned man, conversant in areas ranging from the jurisprudence of interpretation to the science of global warming. He wrote on property, environmental law, and civil rights, and combined the fields in innovative ways. His “Virtues of Vagueness in Takings Law” was both widely cited, and elegantly argued. Essays like “Science, Rhetoric, and Distribution in a Risky World” were philosophically informed readings of fundamental controversies in environmental policy. Throughout his scholarship, there was a concern for the marginal: the victims of environmental racism, sexual orientation discrimination, climate change, and many other contemporary scourges. But there was also a wise awareness of the limits of law and the complexities of advocacy.

It is thanks to the efforts of people like Marc that marriage equality has come to America. I say this not only because an article like “The Cultural Property Claim in the Same-Sex Marriage Controversy” clarified the stakes of the term “marriage” so eloquently and empathetically. Marc’s service and faculty advising modeled, for all of us, a patient way of working for justice in slow-moving courts and agencies, and in institutions affiliated with a “church that can and cannot change.” Marc explored gender and LGBTQ equality in so many dimensions: legal, sociological, anthropological, economic. I have little doubt that his work will be consulted again and again, as scholars reflect on his illuminating efforts to balance liberty and equality, tradition and innovation, individual self-expression and institutional self-governance.

Marc was also deeply involved in the community. He devoutly maintained a meditation practice, both as a leader of group meditation sessions and a member of area sanghas. He offered his teaching to all at Seton Hall, and organized sittings and other opportunities for us to experience meditation’s compelling combination of relaxation and focus. While some might see meditation as an unlikely practice for lawyers, Marc helped us understand both professional judgment and spiritual practice as complementary ways of gaining a broader perspective on reality. Groups like the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education have shown how important these opportunities can be for both faculty and students alike. I will always be grateful to Marc for bringing these practices to Seton Hall.

Marc was also a very committed teacher. He went above and beyond in his administrative law class to include extra material on state and local government that few other courses in the area covered. The standard for his seminars was exceptionally high, and he’d have frequent meetings with students to help them perfect their papers. He was available all the time, and always happy to talk.

Finally, I will always remember Marc as wonderfully effervescent. He was such a delight to have lunch or dinner with. And he would talk about just about anything: how to argue a difficult point in an article, how to navigate administrative mazes, or what were the best parks and beaches in New Jersey. He was such a good listener. I think this was part of his meditative practice: to open himself up to whatever colleagues or students wanted to chat about, knowing exactly when to inject a note of skepticism, a considered reflection, a guffaw.

I will so miss those conversations with Marc. There is some small sense of consolation in reading his articles, artifacts of a gentle yet meticulous intellect making connections among concepts that only someone of his deep understanding and learning could accomplish. But I wish we’d had more time to learn from him. I hope I can do some justice to his memory by trying to imitate the empathy, reflectiveness, and openness he showed to so many.

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Race, Love, and Promise

Sheena and Tiara Yates

Martha Ertman’s wonderful new book, Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families, is a must read for anyone concerned about families or law. Ertman’s core argument is that “contracts and deals” can play a critical role in “helping people create and sustain families.” In advancing this claim, the book – which reads like a good novel even as it maps the complex, shifting landscape of modern family law – primarily relies on Ertman’s own, very compelling story of love and parenthood. Along the way, however, it also communicates the stories of other “Plan B” families, those that Ertman describes as being formed in “uncommon” ways. In doing so, it clears important space for lawyers and non-lawyers alike to consider the experiences of all families. 

Ertman persuasively makes the case that formal and informal “exchanges . . . [already] define family life” in a host of ways, and that greater reliance on such contracts could support the formation and functioning of Plan B families, as well as their more “common,” Plan A, counterparts. As a family law professor,I am deeply sympathetic to this view.  Even more, like so many others, my personal life is comprised of a patchwork of formal and informal contracts. On one hand there is my almost twelve-year legal marriage and the enforceable post-adoption contact agreement — something Ertman would call a “PACA” — that provides for annual visitation with my younger son’s birth mother. Then, on the other hand, sit the unenforceable, but nevertheless important “deals” that I have made with family members. These include the parenting norms that my spouse and I follow in raising our two children, and the mutual vows that we made before family and friends – such as “to love your body as it ages” and “to support you in the pursuit of your dreams.” These promises both help to define and affirm the contours of our loving commitment as a couple and a family.

Nevertheless, I often found myself seeking more from the story that Love’s Promises tells about the place of contract in family life. Like the students I teach, I have some nagging questions about how well contract can work for those who, for example, lack the money to hire a lawyer to draft or defend their cohabitation agreements, or who, because of past experience with the legal system, might never think about contract as a potentially liberating force in their lives. Moreover, I wanted a more complex narrative about the operation of race and contract in the family context than the book attempts to communicate.

To be clear, Love’s Promises does not ignore the subject of race. Indeed, Ertman deserves high marks for examining topics such as Whites’ exclusion of Blacks from marriage during slavery; the forced sterilization of African American women; and the concerns about transracial adoption articulated by organizations such as the National Association of Black Social Workers in the 1970s in crafting her vision of what the rules concerning contract and love should be. But, as important as this past history is, what I most craved was deeper engagement with what increased reliance on contract would mean for issues of race and family in the future.

Laws pertaining to family have historically structured families, but also race – how it is defined, understood, and experienced — in very consequential ways. Think, for example, about antimiscegenation laws that helped to give content to the very idea of race, determining who would be regarded as black or white, slave or free. I am thus very skeptical about the notion that, without more, we can expect that a norm which encourages greater reliance on agreements — especially those that would be more than mere “deals” and thus enforceable in court – will always have an equality-enhancing effect. A newspaper article that I recently read about the efforts of a black, lesbian couple (their picture appears at the outset of this post) to expand their family helps to explain why.

Sheena and Tiara Yates, fell in love and, after their 2011 New Jersey commitment ceremony, decided that they wanted a child. They successfully had one child and later tried to become parents again. As they had the first time around, Sheena and Tiara, who legally married in 2014, used in-home insemination to conceive. To formalize their family unit and intentions, they also entered into a written contract with the known donor whose sperm they utilized. Their agreement contemplated the donor’s relinquishment of all parental rights in the new baby, something designed to permit Sheena and Tiara to parent the child they’d longed for as a unit of two.

Despite the contract, the donor subsequently brought a custody suit to challenge the agreement’s terms and, at least preliminarily, succeeded in doing so. In a decision that the Yateses are now appealing, a judge granted him parental visitation rights. In cases involving insemination, New Jersey, where Sheena and Tiara reside with their family, courts will only recognize a non-biological parent’s rights if the insemination process was carried out by a physician. Although Sheena and Tiara, according to news sources, met with a doctor and were prescribed prenatal vitamins, the actual insemination process was performed at their home, without medical assistance. Significantly, this is the second custody suit that the Yateses have had to defend. The donor for their oldest child challenged the agreement that they had with him on similar grounds and now has visitation rights with that child as well.

Race, gender, and class intersect in troubling ways in the Yates case. Admittedly, it is not contract per se that produces the potential inequality. In fact, Sheena and Tiara clearly saw contract as an important tool in growing their family. But they entered into the donor contracts described within in a particular context, one in which the medical and legal costs that attend physician-assisted fertility treatments generally remain out of reach for low and even some middle-income families, a group in which African Americans — perhaps LGBTQ Blacks most of all — are disproportionately represented. It is not hard to imagine that health care costs figured into their decision to inseminate at home or, for that matter, to use a known donor rather than an anonymous donor affiliated with a sperm bank. Add to this the potential effects of other factors, such as fact that, given past history, many African Americans mistrust doctors and medical facilities, a phenomenon that Kimani Paul-Emile discusses in her work. All of this troubles the story of contract’s ability to advance the aspirations of all families equally.

Significantly, my lament is not simply that Love’s Promises passes up an opportunity to discuss how the realities of race and structural inequality in this country might diminish the power of contract for African Americans and other groups of color in the family context. Ertman’s book also misses a chance to say something about the particular advantages that contract could offer such groups. Despite my earlier argument, my sense is that there may be some places where contract could be very effectively deployed to disrupt the effects of racial stigma and inequality, especially if paired with other tools.

Consider the example of nonmarital black families, especially those with children. Today, African Americans are the most unmarried group in the country. While the U.S. has seen declines in marriage among all groups, they have been steepest among Blacks. Interestingly, African Americans place a higher value on marriage than many other groups. Studies suggest, however, that considerations regarding financial security and other related issues may prevent them from seeing marriage as a viable option for organizing their lives. In a recent law review article in the Hastings Law Journal, I make the argument that, instead of investing in marriage promotion programs that too often ignore the structural racial inequality (e.g., poverty, school drop out rates, housing and food insecurity, and high incarceration rates) that often creates a barrier to marriage, we should work to honor and better support nonmarital black families where they stand.

When it comes to cohabiting couples, Ertman concludes that they “should be recognized as an ‘us’ in relation to one another through property-sharing rules,” such those proposed by the American Law Institute. She stops short, however, of saying that cohabitants should “be treated as an ‘us’ when it comes to institutions outside the relationship, like the IRS and the Social Security Administration.” As Ertman notes in addressing proposals advanced by other law professors, a focus on cohabitants alone won’t do much for African America, a community in which black “women . . . are three times more likely than white women never to live with an intimate partner and more likely than white women to center their lives among extended kin.” But contract might be a more effective tool if extended to nonmarital families with children, whether the parents reside together or not. This might be especially true if combined with changes in tax policy and the structure of benefits that Ertman is less comfortable making in the absence of marriage.

For reasons already articulated, I do not think that adults in poor, nonmarital black families will or should run out to find lawyers who can draft binding contracts for them. But I can still imagine a world in which a contract-based norm works to destigmatize such families by making it plain that they have structures and “deals” like many others, not just the “tangle of pathology” described in the Moynihan Report issued fifty years ago.   In such a world, even informal contracts could assist the adults in “fragile” families in negotiating the many challenges that they face and serve to reduce conflict. Further, such agreements, to the extent that they help reveal the precise terms of the negotiations in which such families already engage, might uncover the reasons that fragile black families seem to be able to navigate co-parenting better than their counterparts. They might also disrupt stereotypes about the contributions that fathers, in particular, make to such families. Despite the racialized trope of the “dead beat” dad, studies show that nonmarital African American fathers tend to be more involved with their children than nonmarital White fathers, and regularly contribute diapers and other goods as a way of providing support, even when dramatically reduced job opportunities make money scarce.

Love’s Promises helps us see the current realities of both “Plan A” and “Plan B” families, and to imagine what the future could and should be as a normative matter. I’m very grateful to Martha, the symposium organizers, and my fellow participants for helping me to think even more about the possibilities of contract in the family law context, especially where families of color are concerned. On this day, especially, when the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that LGBT couples are “Plan A” families in the eyes of the Constitution, I only hope that Ertman decides to write another book that builds on the important foundation that she has set.

 

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When Love’s Promises Are Fulfilled By the U.S. Supreme Court

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme recognized the fundamental nature of love’s promises. In Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, the Court held,  “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”  Referring to marriage as a “keystone” of the U.S.’s “social order,” Justice Kennedy declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Importantly, the case makes clear that forcing gay couples to go across state lines to marry only to deny them the franchise after returning home undermines fundamental principles of liberty.

It’s no surprise that Professor Martha Ertman’s powerful book: Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families on which she copiously and beautifully toiled while rearing her son debuts the summer that equality in marriage becomes a fundamental right for gay men and women. Nor should anyone be surprised if the book, along with the decision itself, becomes a central text at universities and beyond. In what David Corn calls a “love letter to marriage,” from the pen of Justice Kennedy, the Court reasoned:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.“

With that, the Supreme Court overruled the prior judgement of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and set in gear the reversal of centuries’ worth of stigma, shame and inequality, which may not erase overnight, but overtime will ease. Professor Ertman might also suggest that by the decision, the Court resituates contracts too. That is to say, if viewed from the lens of contracts, which serves as the core, theoretical foundation of Love’s Promises, this decision recognizes a fundamental right in contract for gay men and women. Further, the case expands the “contract” franchise to include gay women and men.

Some scholars approach gay marriage primarily from the constitutional liberties encapsulated in the 14th Amendment, upholding equal protection for U.S. citizens regardless of their status, others approach the issue as a matter of privacy. For Professor Ertman, contracts offer an additional lens and much to deliberate about on matters of marriage, parenting, and familial intimacy. Professor Ertman’s writings on contract (The Business of Intimacy,  What’s Wrong With a Parenthood Market?, and Reconstructing Marriage to name a few) precede the book, and presaged its birth.

Here for example, in a passage from Chapter Eight, she explains that “[i]t takes two more trips to the lawyer’s office to hammer out terms that satisfy Karen, Victor, the attorney, and me, from lawyerly technicalities to the emotional terms we call “mush.” From what started out as an addendum to Victor’s and my coparenting agreement has blossomed into a bouquet of wills and powers of attorney, alongside the amended parenting agreement.” She tells readers, “On the way downstairs, clutching documents still warm from the copying machine, Karen squeezes my hand, as if she too feels that signing all those dotted lines brought a family into being every bit as much as vows of forever that we plan to recite…” As she explains, “if you scratch the surface of marriage—straight or gay—you’ll find contracts there, too.”

Professor Ertman urges us to remember time and again that what builds relationships and sustains them are the formal and informal contracting that take place daily in marriage; they establish the foundation for marriage and what comes after. She works diligently in the book to demonstrate love too undergirds contracts. That is to say, she wants readers to reimagine contracts—not as the products of cold, calculated bargaining or business arrangements—though one must acknowledge contracts can be that too—even in marriage.  Often marriage is the product of love, intimacy, and warm innocence.  At other times, it is the product of business arrangements.  It was that too in the U.S. chattel system: contracts that gave legal sufficiency to the buying, selling, bartering, and even destroying of slaves, including children (among them the Black biological offspring of slave owners). In light of that history yet to be fully explored and appreciated in law, it is a formidable task to resituate or reintroduce contract in the space of families and intimacy. However, Professor Ertman rises to that challenge.

Like it or not, contracts pervade marriage and suffuse premarital agreements. Sometimes contracting in this regard attempts to resituate power and status expost marriage, providing the economically weaker spouse economic stability after the breakup. Martha highlights cases from that of Catherine Simeone who received a “raw deal,” to those of celebrities, including Michael Douglas and Beyonce. Who knew that Beyonce would receive $5 million for “each of their children,” if she and Shawn Carter (otherwise known as Jay-Z) divorced? Professor Ertman might argue that despite the businesslike nature of contracts, these legal arrangements and agreements make most matters clearer for everybody. Professor Ertman explains that contracts and even verbal agreements provide information, they can provide context, and they offer choice.

In Ertman’s life, it was a contract that bestowed her wife, Karen, parenthood of their child—not something biological, legislative, or derived from courts. And she offers multiple reasons for readers to consider the salience of contracts in intimacy, including voluntariness, reciprocal promises, and equal status. She offers an additional reason: love’s promises.

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Involuntary Divorce

Here’s a question that I have about the upcoming same-sex marriage argument.  Suppose you are a same-sex couple that lives in one of the circuits that held that there is a constitutional right to same sex marriage and where the cert. petition was denied last Fall.  In other words, the judgment is final.  Your home state did not legalize same-sex marriage, but (relying on the circuit case), you got married.  In June, the Supreme Court holds that there is no right to same-sex marriage (unlikely, but humor me).

Would that decision means that you are legally divorced?  And if that is true, could one of the parties avail themselves of the state’s divorce law in, say, two years if the relationship breaks down?  How would that work?

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Buffett on Family Business: Beat the Third Generation Curse

warren buffettWarren Buffett is very good at spotting great family businesses. What does he look for? How can his filters help family businesses prosper?

For one, they can mitigate one of the greatest dangers: the third generation “curse.” This refers to how few family businesses survive beyond the third generation, let alone prosper.

An under-appreciated fact about Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate Buffett built: virtually all its family businesses boast second or third generation descendants who rival or outshine previous generations. That is rare among family businesses.

So while every family and business situation differs, Berkshire’s two dozen family companies are a good place to look for insight about multi-generational prosperity in the family business.

Studying Berkshire’s family businesses, I found that they are united by the following values. These values are important factors in their success, in the founding generation and subsequent ones.

Family business members, and their professional advisors, whether in law, accounting, or other fields, would do well to ponder these points.

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Law and the Marriage Gap

 

In his column this week at Al-Jazeera on inequality and marriage,  David Cay Johnston uses our recent book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, to show why marriage has become a class privilege. He suggests a variety of policies to promote investment in the next generation, policies that start to get at an issue we struggled with in the book (and that we thought would be an easy question): what role did the law play in the emerging class gulf in family formation, with the college graduates who have long been the leading champions of the sex revolution settling down into very traditional marriages while marriage seemed to be disappearing from working class communities that once espoused more conventional values?

Our initial inclination was to say not much. The first section of the book argued that the change in the economy and, particularly the disappearance of well-paying stable blue collar jobs for men, explained most of the shift in family form and, indeed, that the economic changes produced fairly predictable cultural changes that increased gender distrust and produced less reliance on marriage To be sure, we acknowledged Carl Schneider’s work two decades ago arguing that family law plays a “channelling function” in reinforcing shared notions of appropriate behavior. But, we also recognized that the class-based marriage divide is not about different norms; most Americans, regardless of race or class, expect to marry and value what marriage has to offer in similar ways. They differ primarily   in whether they expect to find a suitable partner and a point in their lives where marriage makes sense.

As we dug deeper into the research, however, we ultimately did come to a different conclusion: a conclusion that the law does matter and has something to do with the decision about whether it makes sense to marry a particular partner. Read More

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Child Safety, Part III

How might tort law respond, if at all, to the preferences of parents and the general population to invest about twice as much in child safety as adult safety? (see this post for a summary of the data, and this post for a discussion of whether those preferences are normatively defensible).

Here’s my take, which you can read more about here:

Because the studies that I’m drawing from concern the allocation of safety-related resources, they have their most direct implications when we view tort law as (at least partially) a means to make people safer by deterring risky behavior. Those studies create two main implications, one for levels of care and one for damages.

Under a deterrence rationale, the standard of care in tort law reflects what we want potential tortfeasors to invest in accident prevention. The investment patterns from my first post in this series suggest that, at least as a prima facie matter, people want potential tortfeasors to invest twice as many resources in preventing accidents when children are the primary potential victims, even when both children and adults are equally vulnerable.  And if my second post in this series is right, we have reasons to respect those preferences. So when children are among the foreseeable class of victims, courts should require a heightened level of care. Although courts appear to respond to a child’s increased vulnerability to harms—they blindly run out into the street to reach ice cream trucks, for example—I have not found evidence that courts have picked up on the extra value that we appear to place on child safety. I’ve also looked at practitioner treatises, and so far I cannot find any mention that courts or juries are more likely to find a defendant negligent if the victim was a child. So, as a prima facie matter, there are reasons to question whether judges and juries are applying a sufficiently stringent level of care in cases involving children.

To motivate potential tortfeasors to take a heightened level of care for children, damages for child victims should be about twice as high as damages for adult victims. Currently, tort damages tend to exhibit child discounts or mild child premiums. This should not be a surprise. We ask juries to set damages in particular ways that constrain their discretion. For wrongful death, we generally ask them to set damages by looking at the economic contributions that the decedent would have made to her relatives. This puts a very small value on dead children, and results in child discounts even after we add non-economic damages. For permanent injuries, some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that juries tend to award children 20-25 percent more than adults. This is approximately what we would expect if juries were awarding damages based on the number of years that a victim will have to live with her injuries, and then discounting those future yearly payouts to arrive at a single lump sum.   But that child premium is significantly lower than the 2 to 1 ratio that a deterrence-oriented tort system might strive for. So, as a prima facie matter, there are reasons to question whether damages for child victims are high enough to generate the amount of deterrence that people appear to desire.

Of course, there is much more to say.

A fuller deterrence analysis would require examining a host of additional factors, such as whether regulatory agencies or market forces or the threat of criminal liability already provide extra protection for children, whether risk compensation or substitution effects operate differently for the adult and child populations, the differences between contractual settings like medical malpractice and stranger cases, how to handle “hidden-child” cases (which would be partially analogous to thin-skull cases), etc. I invite readers to offer their thoughts on these issues. But as a first cut, there are reasons to think that tort law does not offer the desired mix of protection for adults and children.

We could also ask what civil recourse and corrective justice accounts of tort law might contribute to the discussion. But I will leave that for another day.

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Child Safety, Part II

In my last post, I introduced a set of studies that suggest that parents and nonparents alike prefer to invest about twice as much in child safety as adult safety. For purposes of this post, I want to take that descriptive claim as true and ask: What justifies that differential treatment?

One answer is simply that we should respect preferences (almost) regardless of their content. But that seems too quick.

Below are a few thoughts on how we could justify greater protections for children.
I invite readers to add to this preliminary list.

  • Children have more life years ahead of them to live with permanent injury, and lose more life years if they die. This is likely part of the story, but it is an incomplete defense of the data because focusing on life years would not justify providing children with extra protection for temporary injuries like spending one year in the hospital or catching the common cold.
  • Perhaps everyone deserves an opportunity to achieve certain milestones in life, like growing up and falling in love, that often occur during adolescence and young adulthood. To the extent that life years leading up to those milestones are more valuable, we might want to offer younger people more protection. We might also want to ensure that temporary injuries do not impede those opportunities. (Something like this view might be at work here, where one couple recently wrote up a bucket list for their terminally ill infant and went to great lengths to ensure that they checked off each entry.)
  • Children might deserve an open future.

Stay tuned for Part III, where I will discuss what these empirical patterns might mean for tort law …

 

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Child Safety, Part I

Parents: Do you invest more in your child’s safety than your own? Less? Roughly the same amount?

I’ve been pondering these questions lately. I have numerous friends who have purchased safer cars once they became parents, or suddenly took an interest in the finest of fine print on warning labels. These anecdotes suggest that we invest more time and money in child safety compared to adult safety.  Interestingly, more rigorous empirical examinations support these anecdotes. Those data suggest that parents invest about twice as much in protecting children as they do in protecting themselves, even when both are facing the same probability of experiencing the same harm. Parents are not alone in this preference. Both parents and nonparents appear to want governments to invest about twice as many resources in protecting children as adults. Here’s some of the data:

Untitled

Readers: Does this ring true?

Stay tuned for what these preferences might mean for tort law…

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Prosecutors vs. Divorce Court Judges

What do prosecutors and divorce court judges have in common?

Although this sounds like the start to a lawyer joke, I think examining the two groups together can yield interesting insights. One commonality is their wide and essentially unreviewable discretion.   Prosecutors can decline to charge altogether or can choose which charges to bring.   Divorce court judges often decide based on broad notions of fairness how to split a couple’s entire life savings, and also have power to prohibit parents from having overnight guests when they have physical custody of their children.

The literature on prosecutors is full of potential solutions to the perceived problems of unchecked discretion. One solution is to provide more judicial review. This has been a popular proposal in family law as well, where commentators seek more appellate review of trial court discretion. In my previous post, I explored ways of incorporating community input into family law decisions. This could be framed as roughly analogous to calls for various forms community policing or notice and comment sentencing.

Other reforms call on prosecutors to voluntarily develop guidelines. I want to explore what that might look like if translated to the family law context. Could judges band together and create local guidelines? The answer appears to be no. Below the fold I argue that, contrary to what most appellate courts have held, there are reasons to think that individual judges should be allowed to publically announce their personal rules of thumb and groups of judges should be allowed to publically create group rules of thumb.

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