Tagged: Family Law


Weiner’s Response to Comments about the Parent-Partner Status


As the date for this symposium drew near, I grew both excited and terrified. The excitement stemmed from the fact that seven insightful and well-respected family law scholars were going to read and comment on my book. Not only would my book have an audience, but the audience would be composed of people whom I knew and respected! That excited me. The terror came from my fear that those readers might hate the book.   I confessed to one of my Oregon law colleagues that the fear kept me up at night. He reminded me that academics are supposed to be critical, test ideas, and engage in discussion. He warned me that no blog post would simply say, “I completely agree with the book.” While I knew this fact even before he spoke, his words brought me some peace of mind. Our job is to discuss and to question.  In fact, I myself had critiqued some of my co-participants’ work in my book.

When the blog posts started emerging (and the first four appeared quickly in succession on Monday), I felt a great sense of appreciation that the participants had taken the time to read my book, and had shared their thoughts about it with the world.  I, of course, was also relieved that people found the book interesting and provocative. The participants did not always agree with me, but I found each blog post fascinating, cogent, and deserving of a response. The symposium had instantly achieved my own personal goal of providing a starting point for a conversation.

After reading and pondering all of the blog posts, I was struck as much by what the commentators did not say, as what they did say. While I will engage with each of the author’s comments later, it is notable that no one took issue with the idea that a status might offer great benefits for children and society. No one disputed that too many children are disadvantaged because of suboptimal parental relationships, including a failure of the parents to work together as a team for their children’s benefit. No one disagreed with my claim that it was unfair that society had not given a name to the relationship of so many children’s parents, let alone a structure that might foster supportive behavior between the parents. No one questioned the law’s ability to create a social role, and the effect that a new social role might have on ill-advised reproductive behavior and detrimental parental behavior. The reviewers also left untouched the claim that the status might foster love and civic virtue.

I don’t want to read too much into the silence surrounding these and other topics, for the reviewers understandably focused on the issues that most concerned them. Their silence may not signal agreement with my analysis. Nonetheless, I am going to take it as a positive sign that the book’s basic argument was not challenged. Instead people mostly raised questions about various obligations (e.g., was the content of relationship work appropriate) and potential disadvantages to specific obligations (e.g., would the obligation to give care or share disproportionately impact low-income or minority communities). People’s comments also suggested that they were receptive to the general idea. One participant thought the book “makes a persuasive case for seriously considering the adoption of such a status,” another said the status “is clearly promising enough to be worth a state experiment, or two or three or four,” a third participant concluded, “I fully support Weiner’s larger project of inculcating a stronger tie between parents to promote the well-being of children,” another stated, “I have no problem with three of the five duties,” and yet another indicated that the book was “compelling…on why we need to create a new legal status.” As I said at the end of Chapter 8, “[T]he legal obligations are just the details and details about which we might reasonably disagree. They should not detract from the conclusion that flows from the foregoing analysis: a parent-partner status is warranted.” (p. 318). It seems as if my co-participants might agree; if so, we should work together in the future to identify other inter se obligations that might better constitute the status than those that they disliked. Of course, this future project might become unnecessary if I can convince them here that all of the obligations are warranted.

Before I address each participant’s comments, I want to thank the organizer of this wonderful symposium, Solangel Maldonado. Professor Maldonado has written with great insight about the discrimination that nonmarital children still face as well as the importance of the relationship between divorced fathers and their children, among other things. I feel honored that she chose my book as the centerpiece for a conversation about the future direction of family law. If it weren’t for Professor Maldonado’s initiative and organizational skills (e.g., identifying participants, getting materials out in a timely fashion, and instructing us how to blog), this symposium would not have happened. So, thank you, Professor Maldonado. I have enjoyed the symposium immensely and have learned a lot from my co-participants.

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What’s Law Got to Do with It? Reflections on Martha Ertman’s “Love’s Promises”

Western political thought has viewed love as something that can exist only in the absence of law. Law is for the public sphere. In the private sphere the language of law should not be spoken, because it can only contaminate relationships, injecting terminology of rights and obligations where the language should be that of love, trust and caring. Accordingly, a nineteenth century common law doctrine deemed contracts between spouses as unenforceable. Not surprisingly, it benefitted those who were in control of the family’s assets, the men. Husbands who promised to pay their wives for their work at home could easily avoid enforcement of their promises arguing that a husband and a wife cannot, by definition, enter a legally binding promise with each other.

This doctrine lived well into the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1970s Feminist critique of this doctrine has called attention to its fallacies. Susan Moller Okin argued in “Justice, Gender, and the Family” that the notion of unenforceability of agreements between spouses magnifies the vulnerability of women within the family and servers the interests of men. Contracts and legal commitments not only will not poison marital relationships but will promote and ensure more justice and equality for women.

Similarly, Patricia Williams has powerfully demonstrated how important it is for one’s sense of personhood to be considered legally competent to become a party to an enforceable contract; her now classical 1987 article “Alchemical Notes” discussed the importance of contracts to African Americans, who had been, as slaves, subjects of contracts, but never parties to them. Now “Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families” joins this important lineage of scholarly paradigm-shifting works on the importance of contracts for minorities and disenfranchised individuals and communities, showing the inherent connection between family law, contact law, and the recognition in the full humanity of LGBTs and other individuals who want to create the families of their choice. Read More


Love and Contracts, and Fairness Too

It is not an easy thing to keep the concepts of love and contracts in the same mental frame, but Martha Ertman in Love’s Promises comes as close as any legal scholar ever has in showing the affinities between the two. Indeed, the case she makes for the positive role that enforceable contracts and unenforceable deals play in structuring and protecting what she calls (in a nonjudgmental way) Plan B families is compelling. (Examples of Plan B families are cohabiting households and those led by adoptive parents or parents who have used reproductive technologies.) I am particularly struck by how persuasive the book is in presenting negotiation processes (between cohabitants; prospective spouses; donors and recipients of gametes; and birth and adoptive parents) as generally salutary and beneficial, quite independently of the specific contracts and deals that might arise from them.

We know from experience that almost all family relationships are constructed around informal negotiations, compromises, and arrangements, the details of which are usually implicit and assumed. At the end of the day, Martha is encouraging all of us, regardless of our familial, sexual, and parental predilections, to make the bargaining and the deal-making more explicit. Martha’s book makes a compelling case for why Plan B families can benefit considerably from embracing agreements of all sorts.

Martha’s love affair with contracts, of course, fits nicely with our pervasive twenty-first century capitalist ethos that prioritizes choice, autonomy, and self-determination. Sometimes it seems as if all (or almost all) of us in this country are libertarians of some stripe or another, with some of us emphasizing autonomy in personal and sexual matters and others of us emphasizing economic freedom. On the other side of both sets of debates stands the intermeddling government (if we are feeling polite) or evil bureaucrats (if we are feeling less polite).

Martha is undoubtedly correct that when the government, for example, regulates the use of reproductive technologies (as several European countries have done), it tends to do so at the expense of Plan B families. Nonetheless, it is important to avoid simple dichotomies that present the private as the “good” and the public as the “bad” or “problematic.” Ultimately, I do not believe we can have a fair and normatively appealing contract-based regime in family law without significant involvement by the state. This is because the relationships that Martha writes about are often characterized by significant power and economic disparities. A regime of “pure contract law” (note the scare quotes) can exacerbate rather than mitigate the effects of those disparities.

As Martha recognizes, for example, there are usually considerable power and economic disparities between birth and adoptive parents. In order for Post-Adoption Contract Agreements (PACAs) to protect the interests of birth parents effectively and fairly, it may be necessary not only for courts to interpret them in ways that are favorable to birth parents, but for the government more generally to inform them of the PACA option, educate them about their advisability, and guide them through their enforcement.

There can also be significant power and economic disparities within married and unmarried relationships. When it comes to the former, we need to make sure, through government policies, educational campaigns, and judicial enforcement mechanisms, that a contract regime of prenuptial agreements does not unduly favor wealthier prospective spouses who might be able, if left entirely to their own devices, to set the terms of one-sided contracts. As for unmarried partners, we need to make sure that the more economically powerful parties in cohabiting relationships are not able to dance around contractual obligations after those relationships end in ways that are unfair to the less powerful partners (usually those who work more inside the home).

To her credit, Martha does not allow her passion for contracts to blind her to economic and social realities as reflected in power imbalances within many family relationships. As a result, while the descriptive parts of the book celebrate stories of love and contracts, the normative parts are infused with calls for thoughtful enforcement mechanisms aimed at promoting not only freedom of choice, also but fairness for homemakers (of all genders, sexual orientations, and economic classes). Although the contract aspects of Love’s Promises may get most of the attention (as reflected, for example, in Judge Richard Posner’s blurb on the book’s back cover celebrating “free choice” and “private contractual arrangements”), they are only one part of the story that Martha tells.

It would be a mistake, then, to view Love’s Promises as a simple clarion call for the private ordering of family law. Yes, Martha has great faith in the power of agreements to clarify, structure, and protect families of all kinds. But to accomplish those objectives in fair and just ways, she makes clear that we need laws and policies that are highly attuned to disparities in power imbalances and social biases that harm those who, for reasons of choice, gender, or relative powerlessness, are more involved in homemaking than in moneymaking. To me that is as an important takeaway from Love’s Promises as is its fusion of love and families on the one hand and contracts and deals on the other. The contracts may be the sexy part, but the guaranteeing fairness is the hard one.


Understanding the Relationship Between Plan A and Plan B

I’m honored to be part of the symposium celebrating Martha Ertman’s important new book, Love’s Promises. Ertman writes in an accessible, engaging style and weaves in her own deeply moving—and encouraging—family story. Even as Ertman provides a text for a general audience, she makes a substantial intervention in ongoing debates among family law scholars. By showing how contracts and deals shape family life, Ertman debunks the conventional wisdom that intimacy and childrearing are incompatible with the cold language of bargain and exchange. And, as importantly, she shows how contract actually facilitates a freedom in family formation that we should celebrate. As Ertman argues, “society and people individually are better off when we can choose when, how, and with whom to have a family.” (p. xiv)

Ertman focuses on what she calls Plan B families. She means Plan B to convey “exceptions to the general rule instead of unnatural or inferior.” (p. xiv) Plan A “is what’s common: more than nine out of ten kids are raised by their genetic parents, marriage is the most common family form, and most people are straight.” (Id.) Plan B, on the other hand, “covers a wide variety of uncommon families, from repro tech and adoption to cohabitation.” (Id.) As Ertman explains, “‘common’ is not the same as better.” (Id.) The Plan A/Plan B dichotomy translates into legal frameworks. The law, Ertman explains, devises “a general rule for the most common state of affairs”—Plan A—but “[w]hen something unusual happens, like repro tech, adoption, or cohabitation”—Plan B—“the law carves out exceptions to fit that situation.” (p. xv)

In this post, I rely on Ertman’s Plan A/Plan B distinction to say more about the relationship between the two, conceptually and legally. The Plan A/Plan B distinction is unstable, and that is partly what makes it so illuminating. As Ertman’s examples throughout the book demonstrate, families can be Plan A along some dimensions and Plan B along others—a married same-sex couple, or a different-sex couple using reproductive technology. And so Plan A rules may fit the mold in some ways and yet fail to fit in others. Because of this blurriness, the legal regulation of families may use different justifications to apply the same rule in different circumstances; a Plan A rule may be interpreted to apply to a Plan B family. And as rules are devised and principles articulated for Plan B families, Plan B concepts and rationales may seep into Plan A rules and reasons. My main point is that as the law grapples with and recognizes Plan B families, the logic it employs—in Ertman’s terms, a contractual one—reverberates across family law’s regulation of all families.

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Promises Are Meant to Be Broken: Thoughts on Martha Ertman’s Love’s Promises


Professor Martha Ertman’s wonderful book, Love’s Promises, pushes readers to reject ingrained beliefs about the separation of love, family, marriage, parents, and children from the world of markets and contracts. She deftly uses her personal story to illustrate her central argument that contracts and deals facilitate the creation of varied family structures and that family law should continue to embrace this trend. I firmly agree with Ertman’s premise that much of family law is explicitly or implicitly based on contracts (legally enforceable) and deals (not legally enforceable). Surely anyone who has ever been in a relationship or raised a child knows that these experiences require agreements about what relationships mean and about what we owe to each other as we create and sever familial ties. Ertman’s book makes a strong case for the value of planning, focus, and deal making when creating families to help guide those families through life and, if necessary, to help dismantle them with minimum acrimony when they fail. I hope that this part of her book resonates deeply with readers who are thinking of creating Ertman like “Plan B” families, as she calls them. Despite my strong agreement with Ertman’s central premises, I left her book with lingering questions, a few concerns, and a desire to hear more about her view of the intertwining of law and family. Read More


Walter Scott and The Child Support System

In the blizzard of publicity surrounding the murder of Walter Scott, the unarmed African-American who was shot in the back as he ran from a routine traffic stop, the media has somewhat belatedly discovered the criminalization of child support enforcement. What it has yet to address fully is the way that criminalization imposes child support terms on poor, often minority, men that can be much harsher than those imposed through the system that typically applies to middle class families.

Earlier this week, The New York Times discussed the way state-initiated child support enforcement, as it prioritizes extracting payment from poor men who cannot afford it, is a disastrous trap. The article focused on the experiences of Walter Scott, shot in the back after he was pulled over by police for a broken taillight. Scott ran because he feared being sent to jail for falling behind in his child support payments.   His death occurred, according to one source in the story, as part of a punitive system that imprisons men “’over and over again for child support debt simply because they’re poor.’”

Those fighting the excessive incarceration – and murder – of African-American men have highlighted the pointless criminalization of child support enforcement. In South Carolina, a state where African-Americans constitute 28% of the population, 70% of those who end up in jail because of child support issues are black.   While a system that sends poor men to jail for debts they cannot pay is unconscionable, so too is the establishment of many child support awards in the first place: they are arbitrary, unfair and at odds with the treatment of elite fathers and, often, of the parents’ own arrangements.

Child support today reflects a system that results in the treatment of poor fathers dramatically differently from wealthy fathers. Read More


What’s in a Name?

Friday’s New Jersey Superior Court decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow holding that equal protection requires the extension of marriage to same-sex couples was an important victory for marriage equality overall and for recognition of the importance of naming. The decision arises at a time when debate continues over whether the New Jersey legislature will override the gubernatorial veto of the last year’s Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, which would have extended the title of marriage to same-sex couples in New Jersey.


Seven years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded in Lewis v. Harris that the equal protection challenge to the state’s refusal to marry same-sex couples could be separated into two distinct issues – (1) whether same-sex couples had an equal right to the rights of marriage; and (2) whether they had a right to the title “marriage.”  As to the first question, the court easily concluded that same-sex couples were entitled under equal protection principles to the benefits and privileges of marriage.  But as to the second question, the court was careful to maintain a distinction between substantive rights and naming.  In deferring to the legislature, the majority chose not to “presume that a difference in name alone is of constitutional magnitude.”


The question of access to the title of “marriage” has often focused on the social costs associated with being labeled something other than married.  In her stirring dissent from the court’s deferral of the naming question in Lewis v. Harris, then-Chief Justice Poritz identified the stigma and devaluation flowing from giving same-sex couples a title other than marriage.  I have written more extensively about this issue elsewhere.


The decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow highlights the substantive costs (apart from the social ones) of failing to use the term “marriage.”  With DOMA’s Section 3 in place prior to Windsor, committed couples in New Jersey—in marriages or civil unions—were similarly, if not equally, situated regarding substantive rights and privileges.  But with Section 3 invalidated and many federal agencies conferring federal benefits only to married same-sex couples, not couples in civil unions, New Jersey’s committed same-sex couples do not receive equal protection as promised by Lewis.  The decision underscores just how much there is in a name.


Who’s Your Daddy?

Perhaps you, like me, sometimes find yourself wondering, “What ever happened to that delightful actor Jason Patric, star of the beloved 1987 film The Lost Boys?” I have a partial answer to that question. He is a biological father who is fighting to become a legal father to a child he shares with an ex-girlfriend. The story is more interesting than it might initially seem because of the way that Patric’s child was conceived.

The child in the middle of this custody dispute is named Gus and his mother, Danielle Schreiber, is Patric’s ex-girlfriend. According to published reports, Patric and Schreiber were not in a relationship when Gus was conceived or born. Patric donated his sperm to Schreiber, in the same way that thousands of men donate or sell sperm each year for infertility treatments for women to whom they have no connection. Schreiber conceived in a doctor’s office. If the two were a married couple and the pregnancy resulted from fertility treatment using the husband’s sperm, there would be no problem with Patric’s claim that he is both a genetic and legal father. But that was not the case here, and their accounts of their post-birth expectations are, unsurprisingly, very different.

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Neutering Parents: Parents’ Sexual Liberty and Marriage

Recent reports of a Texas state court order requiring a divorced custodial mother’s cohabiting female partner to stay away between 9 pm and 7 am while the children were in the home brings to mind the continued discrimination against same-sex couples and same-sex couples with children through custody law, despite major strides on the marriage access front.  In my 2012 article The Neutered Parent, I explore the ways in which custody law has historically been used to enforce norms of sexuality against women and sexual minorities, particularly to discipline sexuality into a marital framework.  The problem with this judicial action, of course, is that same-sex couples may not marry in Texas.  The wider availability of marriage, however, would not necessarily diminish the assumption inherent in such “morality clauses,” that parental sexuality is best pursued in a marital context.  Broader access to marriage/marriage rights, including as conferred by the federal government following Windsor, should prompt us to consider with greater attention the rights of parents outside of the marital sphere.  Analysis of the latest Census data highlights the class-based disparities in who gets married and who doesn’t.  Nonmarital parents constitute a significant and growing percentage of parents.  These reports raise the question of how custody law should address such realities of contemporary family life.  Is the answer to bring more parents into the marital fold?  The Texas case suggests continued reliance on heterosexual, marriage-based norms of parental sexuality.  As I discuss in The Neutered Parent, the ALI’s 2002 amendments to custody provisions pertaining to parental sexuality fail to foreclose the types of thinking that animate discriminatory custody decisions.  While the ALI suggests focusing on parental “conduct,” rather than relying on biased assumptions about how parental sexuality and nonmarital sexuality pertain to children’s best interests, the ALI might provide more explicit criteria for what qualifies as relevant conduct.  Without such clarification, actions that might not read as “sexual conduct” in a marital setting, like a parent’s private consumption of pornographic material, might look like evidence of relevant conduct in a nonmarital setting.  This is because of what I describe in The Neutered Parent as the perceived “sexual salience” of nonmarital parents in judicial determinations of custody.  Greater clarity regarding relevant parent conduct can better serve sexual liberty interests as promised by Lawrence v. Texas.


What It Means to Talk about Reproductive Justice

In my first post, I offered a truncated discussion of reproductive justice (RJ) in which I strongly asserted that RJ is not solely, or even primarily, about abortion. I then went on to write a blog post about abortion, so I forgive you if you think that I was being deceptive. Perhaps in that post I could have directed you to check out the schedule for a conference that I’ve been organizing at my law school called, Beyond Roe: Reproductive Justice in a Changing World, which will take place on October 11. That schedule, while certainly not ignoring abortion, also considers issues of faith and reproduction, choices in childbirth, assisted reproduction and women’s equality, access to contraception and more, which illustrates my point about how wide a shadow the RJ umbrella casts. In this post, to further illustrate my point, I am going to write about examples of reproductive regulation, some more overt than others, that fall squarely within the rubric of RJ and offer some ideas about how a justice lens helps illuminate critical issues and lead us toward resolution.

As I wrote previously, reproductive justice (RJ) is about the right to have children, to not have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments, which means that its reach is expansive. That expansive reach is absolutely necessary in the world of reproductive hierarchies in which we all reside. I use the term reproductive hierarchies to reflect the reality that individual decisions about reproduction are subject to varying levels of approbation or disapproval as expressed through public policy and law. While our system creates benefits for many of those who procreate and finds ways to encourage their procreation and support their parenting, for instance by giving tax breaks for child care and education costs, there are many others whose choices about whether and how to bear and beget are less accepted. For instance, an undocumented immigrant who gives birth to a child on American soil may get accused by many of giving birth to a so-called “anchor baby”— a pejorative term used to refer to certain children born in the United States to non-citizen parents. Young women who give birth while still in high school or college are subject to various penalties, including being asked to leave their schools or being forced to leave because of a lack of support for young parents. There are those who strongly believe that people who are LGBT should not procreate or parent and many state laws either do not protect LGBT people from discrimination in access to the tools of assisted reproduction or deny stability to families created by same sex couples. Even in the absence of pregnancy, women are subject to strictures that can be significantly limiting economically and professionally based on concerns about risks to a potential fetus. Breastfeeding mothers who work outside of the home have to contend with employers who provide inadequate or no time or unacceptable space in which to pump breast milk during the day, thus making it harder or impossible for women to effectuate a choice to breastfeed. Individuals living with intellectual disabilities, especially women, are at risk for non-consensual sterilizations sometimes without adequate procedures in place to protect their reproductive interests.

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