Cameras Needed in Courtrooms

Do Cameras in Courtrooms Make a Difference?

There is no question that our citizens are safer when there is transparency in legal matters, but some judges are going out of their way, even issuing gag orders to media in addition to parties and sealing records in select cases, to prevent a review of what goes wrong in child custody matters when laws, facts and evidence are ignored or concealed from the court.

For several years I’ve been observing, analyzing and reporting on issues in family conflict matters that are causing avoidable stress and loss to children and to loving, safe and available parents. At the center of all of my research and reporting is the needs of children, which too often are forgotten or just set aside. The reports are not what matters, but the possibility of improving outcomes for children; the correct term for this form of journalism is Solutions-Based Journalism.

This form of news media and investigative reporting may not be popular in some circles as it challenges the dangerous status quo, but if it didn’t matter, we wouldn’t be talking about Rule 22 laws and cameras in courtrooms in this state. This is a critical topic the public needs to know is being debated and decided, so I’ll share more of my work and that of other journalists to support understanding and participation in this debate. In the meantime, please ask video journalist Nydia Tisdale about her experience filming public events and proceedings, and ask how you can support her efforts to inform citizens and increase transparency. Her unique work has been featured by news media not only in Georgia but by the Associated Press for her bold moves to support open government and greater public participation.

The more you know, the greater likelihood you’ll contact your legislators and your local news media because we do need cameras in courtrooms and we do need ongoing reporting about how family conflict and legal matters are managed.

A major issue for all, including for ethical, talented legal and healthcare professionals, is that foul play by certain other professionals is rampant and worsening with each year. In part this is due to a vulnerable and unsuspecting public but is also due to a cloudy courtroom landscape where it is easy to disguise bad faith and unethical tactics used to increase billable hours.

Another factor in the worsening of predatory & harmful case management is that certain judges are willing to play along, such as in this highly unusual Augusta situation which was investigated and reported on by local news media.

In the case featured in the news report below, the judge gave custody of the mother’s daughter to her ex-boyfriend when he gave custody of her two sons to this man, their father. However, the man has no biological or legal relationship to the girl, meaning this child and her mother were tormented and torn apart unnecessarily. Note: I have no connection to these parties, no bias or preference other than for facts and laws to count for the children involved. After studying dozens of cases closely in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, collaborating with local news media & seeing news stories through to completion, I know these courtrooms and local practices well and stand by my work and these news reports. Also worth noting, this is not water under the bridge for these children and their families; the damages are ongoing, and more families are being harmed in similar ways as you read this.

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If the facts and evidence of this case justified an award of custody to the father of the boys, that would be reasonable, but the court also ignored the physical, visible evidence of family violence.

In a separate conversation we’ll feature more of the instruction for judges pursuant to the Georgia Domestic Violence Bench Book, which should be required reading for court officers and court staff such as clerks, social workers and others working with judges on these cases. This Bench Book is available online and published as a 10th edition, with participation from dozens of professionals from around the state of Georgia, so it’s not a secret to our courts that family violence, including in making determinations of custody and visitation, is a matter to be taken seriously.

Please review this news report and ask yourself how this could happen, why a judge would do this, and if the judge is making this kind of ruling, what else is going wrong in his courtroom.

Another key question is whether or not this court and this family could have benefitted from the application of instructions found in the Judicial Guide to Child Custody.

Solutions to Consider:

First, learn about your local courts before you enter into a legal action. Learn about practices of professionals before you sign agreements and pay retainers. Understand why so many families are losing their homes, health and jobs during or following litigation and especially why so many children are kept in or moved to unsafe environments.

Next, learn about accountability systems that exist to provide oversight of professional conduct, including judges and other court officers and experts who help determine outcomes. Do you see any consequences being given to professionals in your area or are you familiar with any investigations into questionable conduct of those managing these types of cases?

Learn from the testimony of lawyers, doctors, teachers, parents, grandparents and others who are brave enough and articulate enough to state clearly what they experience or witness, and who are willing to call it what it is – especially if something improper has transpired, as in this Augusta news report.

Remember that all of these court professionals, including judges and child custody experts, are human, meaning they make mistakes, become fatigued and even worn out by the extreme emotions displayed in these cases; none of them, and none of us, are perfect. But the reality is that they have sworn to uphold our laws and they have a duty to do what is right by the children caught in litigation and who are often torn apart in the process.

Where you have the opportunity to encourage the use of cameras in courtrooms, with proper approval of Rule 22 Requests to Record, Videotape and/or Audiotape, to Televise or otherwise make publicly available these proceedings, please do so as it is highly likely you will help save lives.

Please contact My Advocate Center and let me know if you have questions or would like to contribute toward making these solutions available.

Thank you,

Deb Beacham, Founder

 

How Do You Tell This Story?

There is no one way or no best way to tell the story of a man driven by others to take his life. I know, because I have been trying to explain to state leaders, media, and professionals how this is happening to good people who trust our legal system to work to protect them and their children. Challenging doesn’t even touch it.

Author Mike Volpe deserves credit for coming as close to perfect – or as close to doing justice – as one can when speaking of Chris Mackney’s early death by suicide, and how this relates to family court.

Bullied to Death: Chris Mackney’s Kafkaesque Divorce

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Why should you read this book?

Because our nation is in crisis and we are losing parents and children by the thousands each year, and because the cause of loss and suffering is strange to us, hard to fathom, hard to explain…unless you experience it, or take a closer look at the numbers and the patterns behind the number.

Volpe tells this story while also providing enough detail from other cases, involving similar losses to families in several states, to open up this discussion in a way that can lead to action.

 

 

How Reading Bullied to Death by Michael Volpe Helps Us Solve a National Crisis

  by Deb Beacham

If I had not experienced myself what happened that caused a grown man, an intelligent, beloved man, to take his own life, I might respond to this tragedy by saying, “Well, there must have been something terribly wrong with him, that poor father, that caused him to do this.”

This story is shocking, outrageous and hard to believe at times, but journalist Michael Volpe does this tragedy justice in also revealing it as a very important playbook – a must read for our leaders, law enforcement, healthcare and legal professionals, and especially for an unsuspecting public. That is, for those wishing to avoid the death trap that took Chris Mackney’s life. His death and his children’s losses could have been avoided, and Volpe’s work is helping us learn from this tragic lesson.

Author Michael VolpeAdrenaline junkies will be satisfied by the intense murder mystery plot, conspiracy theorists will find new rabbit holes to plunder while others will draw hope and feel relief from having the dangers of family court spelled out as Volpe has done here.

Advocates, ethical professionals, parents and grandparents around the globe cheer, some loudly and some through tears, when investigative reporters and journalists get it right about suffering and loss being forced upon them. That is what Volpe has done in his book Bullied to Death: Chris Mackney’s Kafkaesque Divorce.

The loss and suffering caused to families and children by dishonest, biased and punitive family court professionals has been described in the Huffington Post by Anne Stevenson, Tina Swithin, Randy Burton and other writers, but there has been little done to develop and leverage solutions, mostly because it is a highly controlled, convoluted and profitable system designed to prevent exposure and accountability.

Burton is correct that crimes are being committed and with no chance for accountability or recovery, but we need more than that because to stop there may leave us hopeless.

What Volpe has outlined in this book may well give us what we need to start turning the tables on those causing the damages, and that is how we are responding to his work by leveraging it along with our research at My Advocate Center in Atlanta.

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Why is it so difficult to focus on these issues, this attack on parents and children? Correct, there is nothing light, funny or charming about it, and the bad actors do not look like the mob characters we see in the movies or on television.

The lack of inaction until now may also be due to the fact that many people see this crisis as just a family problem, a divorce problem, a mental health problem, a crime problem (in another jurisdiction).  Authorities manage to in some way compartmentalize the issues into existing only under someone else’s list of issues to address. “Someone else will have to deal with this,” and, “it’s just too bad” that this goes on.

Well, that’s just not good enough, and what we now have is a runaway collection of professionals across our nation (and beyond) who put their own profits ahead of the safety and wellbeing of our families and children. The damages stretch across every social or socio-economic barrier we’ve erected and the only thing holding us back is the notion that it is someone else’s problem. We have the data, and we have Volpe’s work in this book and his series of articles that break down who is doing what, how they’re doing it as well as how they’re getting away with it.

We must accept as a society that this problem belongs to and impacts all of us, and we are all a part of the solution – we all have the ability to help turn the tables on predators who profit from undermining families and the legal system, with the worst of it being the damages to children and their parents. Everything fails and suffers from there. Just ask actor Jason Patric or actress Kelly Rutherford. Lives are being turned upside down, and simply for profit and a failure of ethics, and an abandonment of laws and duty.

The state of Connecticut at least recognized that a response was needed so it will be interesting to understand what has taken place since this public forum laid out the facts. The CT Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care & Custody of Minor Children opened up dialogue to invite “constructive suggestions about how to improve a process we all know can be made better.” That is putting it mildly but we’re grateful state leaders even opened the door and allowed public discussion on the issues. We were glad to hear that law enforcement as well decided to investigate, but the rest of us need to have staying power and need to support the authorities in continuing and expanding on this work. The predators expect us to get worn out, busy or to assume someone else has it covered.

I believe that this type of public hearing done in CT, combined with media coverage and these hard-hitting articles, are two parts of the overall solution as awareness must come first, but until now we’ve been a long way off from having enough data clearly laid out to know what should be a next step.

When Michael Volpe entered the scene and began digging into these issues, I was another person who breathed a sigh of relief, dared to hope and committed to doing what I could to empower his work. One way I could do this was to introduce him to investigative TV-reporter Nick Lulli and to help both Volpe and Lulli draw clear comparisons between cases until the specific fact patterns of fraud emerged.

Screenshot 2014-12-02 10.09.57As one reporter to another, Volpe and Lulli could dissect and debate the issues that cause most people to lose their ability to communicate effectively, let alone be able to ask for help. Lulli, during his time in Augusta, Georgia, was able to piece together several compelling reports about damages caused by outrageous and unethical professional conduct.

Volpe included some of Lulli’s work in his book, including a story about a father believed, even by the judge, to have attempted the murder of the mother and his own son by arson. By shutting down the fire investigation this abusive, wealthy doctor was able to take custody and move the children away while doing everything to prevent the mother from maintaining a bond with her children. The children disappeared from Georgia before the mother could learn they were gone, and only found out when they did not come off the school bus as expected.

What has not yet been reported on is that the mother’s attorney, who billed her close to $200,000.00 in fees, has a pattern of allowing this kind of loss and trauma to happen to her own clients, especially to women when there is violence, child abuse and/or fraud involved in the case.

This is not an isolated bad act and the damaging, fraud-related conduct continues, which is one of the key points Volpe’s book drives home.

Should plaintiff’s lawyers develop a strong stomach for seeking damages on these cases, all they have to do is ask as the claims and evidence exist in volumes large enough to put many trial attorneys to work for the next decade. Funding is being sought to cover expenses of litigation; and, this may be the only hope for these parents and children to recover.

In other cases, Nick Lulli reported about a guardian named Doug Nelson who helped attorneys throw cases whichever way was most profitable, ensuring ongoing damages, which meant more litigation and increased fees for the professionals. It is known to Georgia’s legal community that Nelson was sexually assaulting women, recommending custody for them when they complied and tearing children from them when they rejected his advances.

To date nothing has been done about the crimes of sexual assault or about the fraud committed, or about the fact that children are damaged along with both mothers and fathers, while other professionals knew about it but did nothing.

Nelson resigned as a magistrate judge but is rumored to be re-applying for similar positions.

Questions still hang in the air in Georgia, including, why are the other professionals not acting to restore parents wrongfully cut off from children who need them, and why has no action been taken to hold anyone accountable? Again, the claims for damages, the evidence and opportunity to help targeted parents and children recover are plenty; please contact MyAdvocateCenter.com if you are an interested trial lawyer or want to help see this litigation proceed.

How many more lives do we need to lose before we take action? Our answer is none. I invite you to read Bullied to Death and to contact me or reach out to author Michael Volpe, and share your response and answer to this question.

 

These journalists deserve credit for taking risk and for the positive impact they are having on people who need a reason to believe something might change for the better. This book may well save a number of lives, and it could be someone in your own circles.

It needs to be stated firmly that this story about an unnecessary and intentionally inflicted loss of life is accurate, and is best told by this journalist who is not a victim of the type of fraud seen in this case. The factors leading to Chris Mackney’s death are intertwined with crimes committed by family members, but also by crimes committed by people sworn to uphold the laws of our country. Volpe masterfully handles the critical task of dealing with both sets of crimes, while setting us up to learn from this chain of events and to hopefully empower professionals and others to prevent more tragedy.

One of my recommendations as a reporter, advocate and parent is that more news media pursue these issues, reveal the evidence and report on the foul play and professional misconduct occurring in every state and in virtually every jurisdiction.

Michael Volpe has now given you a road map and a solid starting block. So, yes, I consider this a must read, especially if you care about the impact of crime on families, children, our education system and our communities in general. This is one set of issues we can do something about in our lifetime, and we now have the blueprint for how it works.

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Why is Volpe’s book so useful for those of us driven to make a positive impact? As a journalist he puts everything into a balanced perspective and relays details of cases and the public reactions in a way that others can understand, so they can pick up the thread and run with a story should they be inclined to do so.

Since I’m both a reporter and an advocate for change, I’ll say my favorite part of the book is Chapter 12, which deals with the question Chris Mackney raised in his search for a way out – what he believed was his salvation in the child custody matter. The question: would having a Guardian ad Litem appointed to help protect his children in the court case have made a difference, as he was fighting for?

Chris Mackney died from trauma caused in family court_loss of children and rightsIn Chapter 12 of Bullied to Death, Volpe asks, “Would a Guardian have saved Chris Mackney?” If you have a family court story to tell, the answer would be a resounding “No,” unless you are one of the rare few to have a true advocate for your children.

We know it’s possible thanks to Georgia’s now retired Guardian ad Litem Julia Bloodsworth from Augusta and a small handful of her peers; it’s just unlikely that without some serious and savvy sleuth work that you’ll wind up with someone who speaks for children and for safe parents as she has done in that jurisdiction. We need more like her, and we need more trained advocates in this arena like we have in the CASA program.

 

But it is still a myth spread around to those who have not taken off the filtered lens; and some professionals will say to someone who lost a child custody dispute and can’t understand why, “Oh, you did not have a guardian? Oh my…” as if that is your answer to why you have no parenting rights or your children were left unprotected.

Attorney Randy Kessler said this to me during a post-divorce consult, and he is a nationally recognized family law attorney who caters to celebrities and is seen on Nancy Grace, so naturally I believed him at the time. It was interesting that he had his younger, junior associates in his office during my consult, so they were listening to the hard-to-digest story I told about being set up to fail, being played and manipulated by my own counsel, so that my children could be taken away and leveraged against a large financial estate. I later realized that none of the associates in the room were surprised by what happened to me in losing custody; the poor outcome was just blamed on the fact that I had only a custody evaluator and not a guardian ad litem.

It’s ok, you can laugh, as we all now know this is a just a game. A traumatic, expensive, deceptive and avoidable one, but the good news is that I was allowed to purchase my children in the process, and not only are they now doing well, they are doing well because their parents work together in spite of what happened, in spite of what the professionals did to worsen and prolong our case, increasing the expense and their profits. Compare these cases to Tammy & Tony’s story on Pro Advocate Radio about how they realized they were both being lied to by the attorneys on either side of the case in order to drive up fees by guiding the parents to destroy each other, creating an unnecessary custody fight.

Kessler blamed my attorneys Kathy Portnoy and Charla Strawser for the damages in my case because the “expert” they chose to evaluate our situation was not a Guardian ad Litem.  He said, “They should have put a Guardian on your case; I don’t understand why they did not…” He was glad to throw them and the custody evaluator Sarah Brogdon under the bus to me in person, saying Brogdon wasn’t the right expert to use on this case. “She’s not a Guardian.” And, I was told, “Everyone knows Sarah doesn’t get domestic violence,” and doesn’t care unless you are missing teeth.

However, Kessler used Guardian/Attorney Susan Hurst in another case to gather the facts and to weigh in as GALs are often judge and jury; and he allowed this guardian to suppress evidence that would have and should have ended the case long ago, without charging the family hundreds of thousands in legal fees and setting the parents up to have property liens for those fees on both of their pre-marital homes. This was a clear-cut case with the mother making false claims to police, so that they would fault the father while covering up the mother’s financial fraud and addiction-related neglect of the children.

It seems in investigating these cases that violence DOES matter to these professionals, but only when false claims can be made and leveraged to increase the expenses on the case; reports about violence are not used to protect actual victims and their children. We’ll visit more on this soon, but please keep in mind we are focused on certain professionals, select child custody experts, and because of clear patterns of wrong-doing and the fallout for families and children.

Back to the issue of what is going on that causes trauma to parents like Chris Mackney:

One question we have is whether this mother decided on her own to stage a fake domestic violence scene or if it was suggested to her, with guidance on how to go about getting a police report that they could leverage in court to destabilize the father. This happens so often and with ease due to the help provided by certain law firms, that it’s time we ask those tough questions in actual investigations with law enforcement. Women are also falsely accused of violence, of child abuse and neglect, of being “off” because of having PTSD and more.

Innocent parents should not be cut off from children, incarcerated and losing jobs and reputations, all so attorneys can maneuver to increase their fees as they complicate and prolong cases.

My opinion on that Fulton County case Kessler participated in is that the court professionals should have sought help for the mother as you would in any other situation. They had what they needed in evidence to hold her accountable, and they had a duty to protect the father from the false claims while addressing the financial fraud involved. They should have protected the children and the mother from herself, and the mother actually would have done better financially if she had taken the father’s offer in the beginning of the case. So many questions, so little time…

My Advocate Center_Book Review CThe outcome is that this mother who worked with GAL Susan Hurst as her child’s advocate wound up owing to her attorneys most of what she was awarded at the end of the case. So who wins in this one?

No one wins, except the guardian and the attorneys who guided the parents into this position. Similarly, Hurst acted as attorney for a father twice arrested for child molestation and found to have large volumes of child pornography in his possession, but Hurst’s argument to the court was not to help her client heal from sickness or to protect the child, but rather to block the testimony of police, the forensic expert & to deny the existence of the evidence, saying, this information is not relevant to this case.

Something has to give here, and it’s not the parents being tormented this way in these cases. They have given enough.

Chris Mackney, the father bullied to death in this ugly process, was much like the innocent father in Fulton County, Georgia, and like so many other fathers and mothers. He just could not know what he didn’t know, and could not understand the scope of the game being played on him or the fact that this is a creative but bold form of racketeering, which we are seeing and experiencing, but without the means to disrupt. If he had known Hurst was aggressively protecting a child molester while at the same time setting innocent parents up to fail – leaving children in harm’s way – would he have agreed to put her in a position of authority on his case?

Both fathers, one alive and one deceased, believed a guardian ad litem and the attorneys and judge would help them because that is what our laws and rules dictate. He believed in duty of professionals to advocate ethically and honestly.

Other fathers like Chris Mackney have taken their lives, including two or more in the Atlanta area, following similarly abusive child custody disputes, including one controlled by Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” King and the GAL Susan Hurst. Both mothers and fathers will tell you they have contemplated suicide, as the abuse, trauma and suffering are so severe. It is beyond difficult to explain what is happening to you, let alone ask for help when your time, your financial resources and your credibility are all being destroyed.

The worst is the grief you experience when your children are ripped from you, especially when you are the loving, nurturing, available and safe parent. The parent the children need most is often the one taken from them. This cruel activity is causing post-traumatic stress symptoms in parents and children, and most are not getting the treatment and support they need to recover. When doctors involved in these cases, like Dr. King and her partner Dr. Carol Webb, or their peer Dr. Nancy McGarrah, actively help cause this trauma and injury as we are seeing, the question is asked about whether other claims for malpractice should be considered. It is no surprise that parents are becoming reluctant to sign contracts with these doctors when the contract demands full immunity from any wrongdoing.

Yet, we see claims filed by doctors (along with Guardians) asking courts to hold parents in contempt for being unable to pay large bills, especially when that doctor or guardian helped to suppress evidence and to destroy an innocent parent.  Parents who are otherwise safe and available for the children are being pushed out, so when you see Court Watch news on social media, you’ll understand why.

Cartoonist Rick McKee of The Augusta Chronicle captures the right look on certain Guardian ad Litem faces as they over charge and under serve parents and children.

Cartoonist Rick McKee of The Augusta Chronicle captures the right look on certain Guardian ad Litem faces as they over charge and under serve parents and children.

Knowing the tactics used on parents and knowing these cases as I do, I can understand why Mackney felt his only way out was through death. Rather than leave it there, I challenge you to use what you have available whether it is intellect, your voice, talent, courage, financial strength, time, or whatever it may be to help prevent more tragedies like this one.

I am using what I have had available to me, including large volumes of evidence gathered – – and it is about the data as a shrewd legislator said to me not long ago. Standing up to bullies like you’ll read about in Volpe’s book about Chris Mackney’s experience has brought me unwanted attention, and I’ve been pulled into court to answer, “What are you doing, and why are you doing this?”  But standing up and speaking out has also opened doors.

Please join me if you have something to contribute, can spare the time and have the courage or desire to see more good people fight back against these bad acts – crimes in many situations.

The public is not allowed to know the rules of the game before becoming trapped, so at the very least we can change that. If you’ve watched the Hunger Games movie series or read the books, you’ve surely thought, “If I could just jump into the story and tell them how the game works, that they are not meant to survive…” Well, in Georgia at least, we have the evidence and the data to show that what happens on cases like these is pre-determined, intentional, but that – with help – the damages are avoidable. When you have this kind of data and proof, then you can create the opportunity to do something about it.

 

So, now that we know, let’s answer this man’s question about what would have saved him.

If Chris Mackney had seen what the cast-of-characters in Georgia have been doing, like Guardians (GALs) Janet Weinberger, Susan Hurst, Larry Yarbrough, Jim Holmes, Diane Woods, Carol Orleck, Lisa Harwell, Doug Nelson and others, to intentionally damage children and push parents over the edge, it might have saved his life. The data we have is actionable, and tragedies like his can be prevented. Worth investing in, don’t you think?

My Advocate Center_Book Review BThere is hope when strong people or media are paying attention, as Mike Volpe, Nick Lulli and The Augusta Chronicle have done. The same goes for people who invested as Joe Sorge has done with his documentary and book Divorce Corp, and the many other men and women who have investigated, reported, written books, blogs and used their voices at state Capitol buildings lobbying for protection and transparency.

Another book written to describe what mothers were being put through in Houston, Texas, is available online, called The Women of Court Watch; so this problem is decades old, and it is getting worse each year. No one is immune as we are seeing here in Georgia on these cases, and even well known, savvy attorneys on being damaged by their peers.

As it’s time we step up and address this crisis, my review of Bullied to Death is an invitation to law enforcement, professional associations – including State Bar Associations and the ABA, psychological and medical licensing boards – to sit down with those of us who have collected and organized the data to reveal actionable steps, and to start allowing our country to heal from the crimes being committed.

There are enough outraged people, there are too many torn from children, who have lost their homes, careers, health and even their lives. It is time for those of us who are capable of following through and acting on the data to do so.

Jason Patric said it perfectly when interviewed on national television about his story and case, “The family court system is broken and in my journey I have learned of so many other stories where children have lost their parents.” “I want to use my story and my name to give a voice to those who do not have one.”

Please read Bullied to Death by Michael Volpe and decide what your role or contribution can be in saving lives and turning the tables on bad actors.

Deb Beacham of My Advocate CenterDeb Beacham is an entrepreneur who specializes in problem solving for families and professionals dealing with high-conflict disputes, including divorce, child custody cases and financial matters. One of the best ways we can assist others is by uplifting ethical, talented professionals and by making sure the public knows how to find them.

Beacham founded My Advocate Center in Fall 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia, to connect a variety of community resources necessary to ensure the best outcome for children who often become pawns in divorce and child custody cases. The mission is to provide parents, professionals and policymakers clear, actionable insight that will aid the dispute resolution process to serve the best interest of the child.

Pro Advocate Radio is sponsored as a platform to keep the conversation going and to empower our community to solve the problems before us, including those presented in Bullied to Death by Michael Volpe.

Broadcasts include topics like family court conflict, domestic violence, child trafficking, unraveling financial fraud, and interviews with law enforcement and legislators on needed policy changes. As funding for solutions becomes available and as more news media pick up these stories, this will become an easier conversation!

First Amendment Rights Protected

Pro Advocate Radio is needed as a Voice for Families, Children and for Professionals Committed to Resolving Conflict in ways that Serve the Needs of Children.

For bloggers, citizen journalists advocacy groups, etc.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/01/20/defamation-bloggers-supreme-court/4658295/

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that bloggers and the public have the same First Amendment protections as journalists when sued for defamation: If the issue is of public concern, plaintiffs have to prove negligence to win damages.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in a defamation lawsuit brought by an Oregon bankruptcy trustee against a Montana blogger who wrote online that the court-appointed trustee criminally mishandled a bankruptcy case.

The appeals court ruled that the trustee was not a public figure, which could have invoked an even higher standard of showing the writer acted with malice, but the issue was of public concern, so the negligence standard applied.

Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said the ruling affirms what many have long argued: Standards set by a 1974 U.S. Supreme Courtruling, Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., apply to everyone, not just journalists.

“It’s not a special right to the news media,” he said. “So it’s a good thing for bloggers and citizen journalists and others.”

Crystal L. Cox, a blogger from Eureka, Mont., now living in Port Townshend, Wash., was sued for defamation by Bend attorney Kevin Padrick and his company, Obsidian Finance Group LLC, after she made posts on several websites she created accusing them of fraud, corruption, money-laundering and other illegal activities. The appeals court noted Padrick and Obsidian were hired by Summit Accommodators to advise them before filing for bankruptcy, and that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court later appointed Padrick trustee in the Chapter 11 case. The court added that Summit had defrauded investors in its real estate operations through a Ponzi scheme.

A jury in 2011 had awarded Padrick and Obsidian $2.5 million.

“Because Cox’s blog post addressed a matter of public concern, even assuming that Gertz is limited to such speech, the district court should have instructed the jury that it could not find Cox liable for defamation unless it found that she acted negligently,” judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote. “We hold that liability for a defamatory blog post involving a matter of public concern cannot be imposed without proof of fault and actual damages.”

The appeals court upheld rulings by the District Court that other posts by Cox were constitutionally protected opinion.

Though Cox acted as her own attorney, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who had written an article on the issue, learned of her case and offered to represent her in an appeal. Volokh said such cases usually end up settled without trial, and it was rare for one to reach the federal appeals court level.

“It makes clear that bloggers have the same First Amendment rights as professional journalists,” he said. “There had been similar precedents before concerning advocacy groups, other writers and book authors. This follows a fairly well established chain of precedents. I believe it is the first federal appeals court level ruling that applies to bloggers.”

An attorney for Padrick said in an email that while they were disappointed in the ruling, they noted the court found “there was no dispute that the statements were false and defamatory.”

“Ms. Cox’s false and defamatory statements have caused substantial damage to our clients, and we are evaluating our options with respect to the court’s decision,” wrote Steven M. Wilker.

Augusta Court Fails to Allow Due Process: Children Gone

The rest of the story in this Augusta case is much darker that at first believed. It is also similar to other troubling stories, the damages revealed by families throughout this judicial circuit. When we contrast the order and beauty inside of Augusta National with what is Outside the Gates, it is for this reason: parents are set up to fail intentionally and children are being left in harm’s way, when there was evidence, testimony and opportunity to prevent poor outcomes. This reality is the opposite of what the world thinks of when they hear Augusta or think of The Masters Tournament. This case and others are pulling back the curtain.

Civil or Criminal?

At one time it appeared that Atlanta attorney Kathy Portnoy was properly advocating for her client, one who appears to have not gotten a fair shake throughout this case. The issue featured here in this news report?

A DFCS report was made available to the court by the father’s attorney and used by the judge in reaching a decision as he noted. The problem for the judge was that the report was not made available to the mother and her counsel so that she had a chance to cross-examine the report and be fully informed in her case. The report was never put into evidence and therefore was not supposed to be considered by the court.

If this report had been put into evidence, the guardian ad litem on the case would have been able to refute it, as she knew it was created as a part of the father’s legal team’s strategy to wrongfully cut the mother out of the lives of her children. This issue was resolved when the appellate court agreed that the judge erred in considering this report. [See VIDEO at the bottom of this page.]

The bad news is that it didn’t matter; the fix was in on this case, and the judge gave the father permission to remove the children from the state before notifying the mother. The mother learned her children were gone when they did not get off the school bus. They did not even get to say goodbye.

We now know this was not merely an “error,” and that it was intentional to cause the mother and children this unnecessary trauma. It was also intentional that this mother was not allowed to know what was being said or used against her, denying her right to a defense.

Have you been allowed to know what was being used against you, or to know that all available evidence is being used to support your case? The more news reporter Nick Lulli investigated, the worse this case looked as evidence surfaced – – evidence that was either not being used by the mother’s counsel, or was being ignored by the court.

This is an ongoing and larger story than we first realized, as the court is now expected by the father’s team to force an agreement on the mother, an agreement which is different from what she was considering, and one which she did not sign. Her attorney used up all of her financial resources and abandoned her. The timing on her withdrawal and how her presence was used to keep this mother in the dark is telling.

Court Watch on Augusta Family Court – April 17th – 9am. If the court refuses to allow a continuance as requested by the mother so that she can find counsel to help her navigate and defend her rights, it will become even more obvious that she was never meant to have a fair trial on these issues, or to have a fighting chance at parenting her children.
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How can parents prepare ahead of time to learn the pitfalls in managing family disputes, especially involving children?

Request more information to learn about the hiring the best team for your needs. This case is another glaring example of what can go wrong when you rely on word of mouth and online marketing to make hiring decisions. There currently is no real accountability for attorneys who allow their clients to fail by withholding evidence and avoiding opportunities to prevail, or for others who use special relationships with judges to reach outcomes that are damaging to children and to good parents. This is just “normal” for Augusta and for other judicial districts.