“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

The public thirsts for gossip, apparent in websites like TMZ and Perz Hilton. Celebrity splits are big news such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon. While most of us do not enjoy celebrity status, the small town rumor mill can be just as virulent as celebrity gossip. Divorce litigants should beware the rules regarding public access to their divorce file. Anyone can head down to the local courthouse and view all the happenings in the neighbor’s divorce or co-worker’s custody battle.  

The prominent case on this issue is the Petition of Keene Sentinel issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court on August 27, 1992. During the 1990 political campaign for New Hampshire’s Second congressional seat, The Keene Sentinel sought to gain access to one of the incumbent’s, Charles Douglas III’s divorce records. The clerk granted the Keene Sentinel only some of the divorce records, citing privacy concerns. The Keene Sentinel brought suit and Charles Douglas III sought to intervene, asking the Superior Court to dismiss the suit. The Superior Court ultimately denied the Keene Sentinel’s request.

The Keene Sentinel appealed, arguing that “disclosure should have been permitted pursuant to RSA chapter 91-A, the Right to Know Law.” The Supreme Court held that a party in a divorce proceeding cannot have the records sealed simply for the sake of general privacy concerns.  The Court held that “[b]efore a document is ordered sealed, the trial judge must determine that no reasonable alternative to nondisclosure exists.” If a trial judge does make such a determination, it must use the least restrictive means available to secure the parties’ privacy rights.

This generally requires that the orders, pleadings and other materials in the file are open to the public for viewing. An exception is a financial affidavit. A party is required by the court to complete and submit a sworn financial affidavit, detailing all income, property and debts. This document usually contains very personal information such as social security numbers, bank information and paystubs. Family Division Rule 2.16 and RSA 458:15-b requires financial affidavits to be confidential for non-parties. In practice, this means that the court file contains an envelope which the clerk will remove if you are not a party to the case. Financial affidavits filed in divorce, legal separation, annulment, or parenting petition cases shall be confidential to non-parties. Access to such financial affidavits shall be pursuant to Family Division Rule 1.30. However, a person not otherwise entitled to access may file a motion under Family Division Rule 1.30 to gain access to the financial affidavit. 

The Associated Press v. NH gives some context to the rule regarding financial affidavit confidentiality. The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its holding in this case on December 30, 2005.   After RSA 458:15-b took effect on August 10, 2004, which, inter alia, made financial affidavits in divorce proceedings only accessible to parties to the proceeding and their attorneys of record, the Associated Press filed suit claiming the law was unconstitutional. The Associated Press argued that the law “violated the public’s right of access to court records” under the State Constitution, and that it was an impermissible restraint on freedom of speech per the State and Federal Constitutions.  The trial court determined that the law was not unconstitutional, and dismissed The Associated Press’ suit. The Associated Press appealed the trial court decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that the law was constitutional.

 The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and finding RSA 458:15-b constitutional. The Court ruled that although the public has a right to access government documents, including court documents, the right is not unlimited.  It opined that "the right of access may be overcome when a sufficiently compelling interest for nondisclosure is identified,” which included the compelling interest to prevent exposing divorce litigants to identify theft and fraud. The Court’s ruling was narrow, however, and only applied to keeping financial affidavits sealed. 

In general, the Court may upon request consider keeping confidential case-related materials for collateral cases that are already confidential pursuant to New Hampshire law. These include termination of parental rights, adoption, juvenile criminal records and abuse/neglect cases and DCYF records.  

 

Miller v. Todd, a parenting case between two parties who were never married, raised the issue of whether Supreme Court Rule 3 is unconstitutional because it treats married and unmarried parents differently for the purposes of an appeal. At the time, only parents who were married were entitled to a mandatory appeal from an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities. A mandatory appeal provides that the case “shall be accepted by the supreme court for review on the merits.” Although an appeal from a final divorce decree or final decree on legal separation is a mandatory appeal, an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities between unmarried parents was not.

In Miller v. Todd the Supreme Court declined to address the issue by declaring it moot. In other words, because the Supreme Court had accepted the father’s discretionary appeal for review, the issue was purely academic because he had not been harmed by having his appeal declined. The Court noted, however, that “any consideration regarding amending Rule 3 should be accomplished in accordance with the rule-making procedures set forth in Supreme Court Rule 51, thereby providing the public, the bench and the bar an opportunity to offer comments and suggestions.”

On April 4, 2014, the Supreme Court adopted new rules, including an amendment to Supreme Court Rule 3 that now provides a mandatory appeal for “the first final order issued in, or arising out of, a domestic relations matter filed under RSA Title XLIII (RSA chapters 457 to 461-A).” The comments to the new rules identify the change results from the claim raised in Miller v. Todd that “providing for mandatory review of appeals involving married parents but discretionary review of appeals involving non-married parents raises constitutional concerns."

Before your final trial, the court will conduct a pretrial hearing. Learn here what will happen at the hearing and what needs to be prepared and filed at the hearing. 

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The following are the new judge and marital master assignments for family cases in the Circuit and Superior Court for January 2013 through March 2013:

 

1st Circuit


Colebrook

Hon. Paul D. Desjardins
(most of these hearings are held in Lancaster)


Berlin

To Be Determined 


Lancaster

Hon. J. Peter Cyr

2nd Circuit


Lebanon

Hon. Lawrence A. Macleod, Jr.


Littleton

Hon. J. Peter Cyr


Haverhill

Hon. J. Peter Cyr


Plymouth

Hon. Thomas A. Rappa

3rd Circuit


Conway

Hon. Pamela D. Albee


Ossipee

Hon. James R. Patten

4th Circuit


Laconia

Michael H. Garner, Marital Master

5th Circuit


Claremont

Hon. John J. Yazinski


Newport

Hon. Bruce A. Cardello

6th Circuit


Concord          

Nancy J. Geiger, Marital Master 
Henrietta W. Luneau, Marital Master
Michael H. Garner, Marital Master


Franklin

Nancy J. Geiger, Marital Master
Hon. Edward M. Gordon


Hillsborough

Hon. Edward B. Tenney


Hooksett

Hon. Paul S. Moore

7th Circuit


Dover

Robert J. Foley, Marital Master


Rochester

Hon. Susan W. Ashley
Robert J. Foley, Marital Master 


Cheshire Superior

Hon. John Kissinger 

9th Circuit


Manchester

Hon. Susan B. Carbon
Thomas G. Cooper, Marital Master
Hon. Sharon DeVries 
Bruce F. DalPra, Marital Master

Nashua

Hon. Julie A. Introcaso
Hon. Michael J. Ryan


Merrimack

Bruce F. DalPra, Marital Master
Hon. Clifford R. Kinghorn, Jr. 


Goffstown

Hon. Paul S. Moore

10th Circuit


Brentwood

Henrietta W. Luneau, Marital Master
Hon. David G. LeFrancois


Salem

Thomas G. Cooper, Marital Master


Derry

Hon. Lucinda V. Sadler


Portsmouth

Hon. Jennifer A. Lemire

 

Voters will be asked on Nov. 6 to approve an amendment to Part 2, Art. 73-a of the New Hampshire Constitution. If the amendment passes, the legislature would be given final say over how the New Hampshire Judicial Branch, an independent branch of government, operates. I oppose the amendment because it allows for a legislative takeover of the courts that violates separation of powers.

Allowing the legislature to dictate court procedures will politicize the courts. Court rules would be subject to change whenever the legislature meets and according to the influence of the political party in control, creating unpredictable and inconsistent procedures and outcomes.

The Nashua Telegraph opined on October 2, 2012 that “the proposed amendment makes a mockery of the system of checks and balances crucial to American government” Instead of an independent judiciary, “the Legislature would be the boss of the New Hampshire’s court system.”

I am voting no on question 2, and I hope that you will join me.

One of my favorite blogs is Law and the Multiverse. The blog’s premise is to take fictional situations from movies, comic books, and televisions shows and discuss the legal ramifications by applying relevant law. Have you ever wondered whether mutants are a protected class? They have the answer. Want to know whether superheroes have a duty to rescue? Check here. Ever thought they just got the law wrong in Snakes on a Plane? You were right.  

I must have had this blog on the brain while watching Fox’s comedy Raising Hope. The show ended its second season with a courtroom custody drama titled “I want my baby back, baby back, baby back.” Jimmy Chance, two year old Hope’s father, is engaged in a custody battle with Hope’s mother Lucy Carlisle, a boyfriend-murdering serial killer who survived execution. The show is very funny, and clearly this episode was going for laughs and not realism. But that didn’t stop me from rolling my eyes or yelling “come on” at some of the absurdly unrealistic depictions of family law. So I thought that I would play Katniss and Peeta’s “real or not real” game Law and the Multiverse style.

Suppressing Evidence

First up, at the start of the trial, the mother’s attorney stands and makes an oral “Motion to Suppress Evidence of My Client as a Serial Killer.” She argues that the mother’s serial killer background should be suppressed because the charges were dismissed as part of a settlement deal from Lucy’s lawsuit against the prison, and therefore technically never happened. Assuming Lucy’s attorney is making the argument based on Rule of Evidence 403, which allows the exclusion of relevant evidence if the probative value is outweighed by the prejudicial nature of the evidence. Of course the fact that Lucy is a serial killer is prejudicial to Lucy, but it is not more prejudicial than probative, and would not be excluded on this basis.

Even if the judge found that it was more prejudicial than probative, in New Hampshire family cases, the judge has the flexibility to disregard the Rules of Evidence. Pursuant to Family Division Rule 2.2, the Rules of Evidence do not apply in divorce and parenting matters. The judge may, in her discretion, apply the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence “to enhance the predictable, orderly, fair, and reliable presentation of evidence.” The evidence of Lucy’s murder spree would absolutely come in as it is critical to the determination of the child’s best interests. The verdict: not real.

Jury Trial

Next, in Raising Hope land, a jury will hear the custody trial and issue a verdict. When the evidence of Lucy’s violent past is suppressed, Jimmy and his parents are not too worried because only locals “who were living under a rock” would not recognize Lucy as the serial killer from her high-profile trial. And then they bring out a jury composed only of miners who were stuck underground during the murders and trial. The Chance’s lawyer quips that he thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do to let his opposing counsel pick the jury (The Chances should probably be looking into malpractice claims). Of course, in reality, juries do not hear family cases. In New Hampshire, a judge (RSA 490-F), marital master, or child support referee (RSA 490-F:15) preside in the family division and issue court orders. The verdict: not real.

Presence of Minors in Courtroom

The jury renders a verdict in favor of the mother, granting custody of Hope to Lucy. While the verdict is being read, Hope sits on her father’s lap. Pursuant to New Hampshire Family Division Rule 2.8 “a child shall not be brought to court as a witness, or to attend a hearing, or be involved in depositions without prior order of the Court allowing that child’s participation. To obtain permission of the Court for the presence of a child in such a proceeding, good cause must be shown.” There are some exceptions for domestic relations cases, such as adoptions (RSA 170-B:19), guardianships of children over the age of 14 (RSA 463:8 and Family Division Rule 5.4), and certain circumstances in abuse and neglect cases (Family Division Rule 4.5). However, these exceptions do not apply in parenting rights and responsibility cases like the Chance custody trial, and Hope would not be permitted in the courtroom. The verdict: not real.

Brawl in the Courtroom

Finally, after the verdict is read, Virginia and Burt, Jimmy’s parents, begin wrestling with the bailiffs and generally causing a ruckus in the courtroom. The Chances seem to remain incarceration-free despite the fracas. This kind of behavior would probably have landed Virginia and Burt in jail for direct criminal contempt. The judge must preserve and protect the dignity and authority of the court, and the Chances conduct violates such dignity and authority. The verdict: not real.

Raising Hope gets an A for laughs, but and F for realism. I’ll still tune in though.

Throughout my years practicing law and in my role as a guardian ad litem, I often hear misconceptions about contempt. Usually I hear statements along the lines of “I don’t want a criminal record” or “if I am found in contempt I will be arrested.” This post is intended to dispel some of these misunderstandings and to set the record straight.

Contempt can be civil or criminal, direct or indirect. The difference between civil or criminal lies in the purpose of the punishment. Direct or indirect contempt contrasts between acts committed either in the presence or outside of the presence of the court.

Civil Contempt

A finding of civil contempt results in an order that is remedial, coercive and for the benefit of the other party. The punishment is intended to force the contemnor’s compliance with court orders. Examples of the consequences of a contempt finding include money fines, orders directing compliance with the court orders, or even an indefinite jail sentence until the contempt is cured. It is often said that the contemnor “holds the key to the jail in his pocket” because curing the contempt will set him free. In family matters, motions for contempt are often brought for failure to pay child support, failure to abide by the parenting schedule, or selling or encumbering property in violation of a non-hypothecation order. Jail is a remedy of last resort, and one that usually only follows repeated, intentional refusals to abide by court orders or extreme behavior. The court will usually exhaust other remedies, such as payment of the other parties’ attorney’s fees, before sending a person to jail for civil contempt. A civil finding of contempt does not appear on a person’s criminal record.

Criminal Contempt

In contrast, a person who has been found in criminal contempt does not hold the keys to the jailhouse, and remedying the contempt will not set him free. The punishment is punitive, and intended to protect and preserve the dignity and authority of the court. Indirect criminal contempt proceedings must generally follow to procedural formalities of criminal proceedings. The defendant is entitled to reasonable notice, providing a date and time for the proceeding and warning that the contempt is considered criminal. The prosecutor must prove the elements of contempt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the contemnor is entitled to counsel and holds the right against self-incrimination. If the court intends to impose a sentence of greater than six months, the defendant has the right to a jury trial.

An example of criminal contempt, and the confusion that can result between criminal and civil contempt, is the New Hampshire case of Mortgage Specialists v. Davey. Mortgage Specialists sued the defendants for violation of trade secrets. Following a preliminary injunction, the defendants destroyed documents in violation of the court order. The court found the defendants in contempt, believing that they had thumbed their noses at the trial court’s authority and thwarted the dignity of the process, and issued penalties including attorney’s fees, fines and a penalty of three times the amount of profits unjustly reaped from the violation of trade secrets. The Supreme Court vacated the finding because the defendants were not provided notice that the contempt proceedings would be criminal.

Indirect Contempt

Indirect contempt is conduct that takes place outside of the presence of the court. The court does not have first-hand knowledge. Instead, the acts of contempt must be proved through evidence. An interesting case that distinguishes direct contempt versus indirect contempt is Kristen McGuire v. Suzanne Collins. In McGuire, a litigant in a custody matter arrived at the courthouse smelling of alcohol. The court security officer approached the litigant, and a state trooper performed a preliminary breath test. The results were not provided to the litigant, or her attorney. However, when she appeared before the court for the hearing, the judge informed her that she had blown a .20, well above the legal limit. However, the litigant displayed no disorderly behavior in the courtroom. The judge sentenced to litigant to 30 days in jail for direct, criminal contempt for appearing before the court in an inebriated state. However, the sentence was overturned by the Superior Court following a filing for a writ of habeus corpus because the family division judge had not personally observed the elements of contempt. Instead, the court had to rely on the observations of the court staff and the preliminary breath test conducted by the state trooper to prove the elements of contempt. Therefore, the court did not have direct knowledge and could not conduct summary proceedings resulting in the immediate incarceration.

Direct Contempt

Direct contempt takes place in the presence of the court where the judge personally observes all of the elements of contempt. The following is a perfect example of direct contempt from Maryland in the case of Patrick Smith v. State of Maryland:

THE DEFENDANT: What is the maximum on contempt, sir?

THE COURT: What is the maxim um on contempt? If I am going to give you in excess of six months, I believe I have to give you a jury trial, is that correct . . . ?

[STATE’S ATTORNEY]: Yes.

THE COURT: Mr. Smith, I am not going to give you in excess of six months.

THE DEFENDANT: Let me tell you something.

THE COURT: What?

THE DEFENDANT: You say you won’t give me in excess of six months.

THE COURT: Yes.

THE DEFENDANT: You know what? You have been sitting up there in the trial in every hearing I have had for this far, right? From day one, you have been very prejudiced to the defense. I asked you, right, a while ago, you tried to skip out on even bringing forth an allegation. You say it is only a bald allegation. I am not asking you to believe me. I am asking you to bring forth the witnesses in this case who could testify —

THE COURT: I asked you if you had anything you want to say as to what sentence the Court should impose —

THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You know what? You can give me six more months, motherfucker, for sucking my dick, you punk ass b itch. You should have a white robe on, motherfucker, instead of a black. Fuck you.

THE COURT: I find you in contempt again.

THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you in contempt again.

THE COURT: I find you three times in contempt —

THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you. And fuck.

THE COURT: On each charge, the Court will impose a sentence of five months to run consecutive to each other and consecutive to any sentence you are now serving or obligated to serve.

THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You better leave now, you, Ku Klux Klan.

Other examples of direct contempt include assaulting another person in the courtroom or refusing to testify when ordered to do so. When direct contempt occurs, the court may skirt procedural formalities required of indirect contempt in light of the court’s direct knowledge of the contempt. The word “summarily” does not refer to the swiftness of the punishment, but rather the dispensing with the formalities that accompany a conventional trial such as service of process, notice of hearing, and submission of evidence. Instead, the court must give the contemnor oral notice of the contempt observed, an opportunity to speak in his defense, where after the court may issue a finding of guilty and pronounce sentence.  

The 9th Circuit Family Division at Nashua is now open. The Nashua Family Division will serve the Hudson, Hollis and Nashua communities.The family division has jurisdiction over divorce, parenting, child support, guardianship, termination of parental rights, abuse/neglect, CHINS, and some adoptions. The courthouse is located at 30 Springs Street, and the phone number is 603-882-1231. For other family division locations, check the court website.

 

 

Same-sex marriage and divorce needs a larger solution then the state’s rights approach. Texas Governor Rick Perry, a potential presidential candidate, recently discussed his views on New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage. Perry said: “You know what? That’s New York, and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me. Our federal government is engaged with far too many things they shouldn’t be involved with at all." The problem with that view is that once it’s one state’s business, it’s every state’s business.

Historically, marriage has largely been left to the authority of the states. States issue marriage licenses, set the age of consent and prohibit certain family relations from entering into marriages. States also make laws regarding the dissolution of marriages, alimony, child support, property division and custody. But the federal government has its say as well. Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman. More importantly, DOMA specifically relieves states of the obligation to treat a same-sex marriage from another state as a marriage under its own laws. And that’s the trouble.

 

In today’s mobile society, where families easily move across state boundaries for jobs, family, retirement, and education, the failure of another state to recognize a same-sex marriage leaves families in legal limbo and without access to justice if divorce becomes necessary. A spouse, with no other means of support, may be prevented from seeking alimony. A child may be barred from seeing her non-biological parent, to her great detriment. A couple may be forced to remain legally bound to one another, long after they have separated, because their home state refuses to recognize the marriage and allow access to the family court system.

 

These situations and the devastating effects it can have on a family, demand remedy. I make the case for justice, setting aside the legal arguments of both sides of the same-sex marriage debate, from equal protection to the 10th amendment to the full faith and credit clause. The federal government must mandate that same-sex families may dissolve their relationships and settle custody disputes wherever they may move in the country. Until the federal government acts, New Hampshire, which requires the person seeking the divorce to have resided in the jurisdiction for one year, must allow same-sex families who have moved from New Hampshire to access the court system to dissolve marriages entered into in New Hampshire.

Republished here, my opinion from the recent Bar News regarding the appointment of counsel for parents in abuse and neglect proceedings:

Few rights can be argued to be more fundamental then the right to raise and care for one’s children. In recognition of that right, New Hampshire has long appointed counsel to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings who face the removal of their children from their care by the State. The NH Supreme Court recognized in Shelby R. that "abuse and neglect proceedings can harm, and in some cases irreparably damage, family and marital relationships."

Despite the constitutional protections afforded to parents, recent passage of HB2 [the budget "trailer bill"] and the issuance of Circuit Court Administrative Order 2011-01 deprives indigent parents accused of abuse and neglect of the statutory right to be represented by an attorney at all stages of the proceedings. The Administrative Order prohibits any new appointments of counsel after July 1, 2011, and orders the automatic withdrawal of counsel after the issuance of dispositional orders for attorneys appointed prior to July 1, 2011. However, legislative enactments cannot override a constitutional protection and the Courts have an affirmative duty to invalidate a statute that violates a person’s constitutional rights.

Fundamental fairness requires government conduct to conform to the community’s sense of justice, decency and fair play. Without the protections of counsel, a parent facing allegations under the Child Protection Act stands little chance of defending himself against the state. As the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Gideon v. Wainwright, "even an intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law." Oftentimes the parents involved in abuse and neglect cases are uneducated, unsophisticated, frightened and do not have the wherewithal to understand the process. They have no skills in asking questions, raising objections, or admitting evidence. They lack knowledge of the law and are at an extreme disadvantage when questions of law arise.

On the other hand, the State, in presenting its case, has the ability, funds and know-how to subpoena witnesses, hire expert witnesses, obtain medical or psychological evaluations of the children or the parents, and investigate the claims and allegations involved in a petition. The State employs attorneys to put on the State’s case and act on its behalf. The parent’s fundamental, natural and essential rights require that counsel be appointed to assist a parent in mounting their defense and protecting their rights.

Additionally, abuse and neglect proceedings can have the most serious of consequences to parental rights: the termination of parental rights. As the NH Supreme Court wrote in State v. Robert H., "the loss of one’s children can be viewed as a sanction more severe than imprisonment." The abuse and neglect proceedings become the grounds upon which the state relies on in a termination of parental rights proceeding. The finding of abuse or neglect, the parent’s progress throughout the case, the status of the parent’s compliance with the dispositional orders, and the alleged failure of a parent to correct the conditions that led to the finding of neglect are the framework of the state’s TPR case. Without counsel guiding and protecting the parent in the underlying abuse and neglect proceeding, appointing counsel in the TPR is too little too late to safeguard the parent’s constitutional rights.

In contrast to other state cuts that have drawn the attention of the media and the public, the prohibition on appointed abuse and neglect counsel for indigent parents has captured little notice. Few of us can imagine the state coming into our home and removing our children, and not having the financial ability to protect our rights and family and advocate for the return of our children. The elimination of parent attorneys is shameful act by a legislature willing to sacrifice justice for the bottom line. As this opinion goes to publication, abuse and neglect parent attorneys across the state are mounting a challenge, and the support of the Bar and the public is crucial to its success. In the meantime, parents will have to navigate the abuse and neglect system without advice of counsel and try their best to advocate for themselves and their children.