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Custody laws: Our government in (in)action

A bill to equalize the presumed share of custody between divorcing parents goes nowhere.

Last month, I testified in front of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee of the Minnesota Senate. I spoke in favor of Bill 1402, which aims to bring presumed equality to shared parenting time in divorced families. Currently, the presumption in Minnesota — that is, the guidelines that are recommended for family court judges to follow — is that one parent gets the majority (75%) of parenting time, and the other parent gets the rest. As you might guess, the 75% almost always goes to the mother. (I won’t comment on my own custody arrangement; negotiations are ongoing.)

This bill has been bouncing around the Capitol for over a decade. One intrepid woman, Molly Olson, has kept the bill alive. She — and I — believe that it is in the best interests of children that the default presumption should be 50-50. The bill makes all sorts of exceptions, for unfit parents and other extenuating circumstances.

By the time I testified, the bill had basically been gutted. The percentage was dropped from 50% to 35%. Nevertheless, I testified that the Court system has habituated a outdated notion that mothers are always better to be the primary parent than fathers. I argued that when the judicial branch of our government is too habituated in certain patterns, the legislative branch needs to step in and set things right.

I acknowledged that it’s odd for a white man to be claiming discrimination. Even so, that’s what this is.

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But here’s the funny thing: Democrats are unanimously against this bill, and Republicans are for it. You know who else is against it?

Divorce lawyers. Even my own lawyer is against it.

Testifying for the bill were parents (both mothers and fathers), a grandmother, two social workers, and a couple former state legislators who are also attorneys. Even a woman in her 20s who is a child of divorce testified emotionally that she had virtually no relationship with her father until recently, because of the existing law.

Testifying against the bill: the lobbyist for the state association of matrimonial lawyers. Plus a couple other lawyers, one of whom practices in Wisconsin.

This is a slam dunk, I thought. It couldn’t have been more clear that lawyers like the current bill, but no one else does. It’s about then that someone in the gallery leaned over and whispered that the Judiciary Committee is made up of State Senators who are — you guessed it — lawyers.

Once the hour of testimony from the public was over, the Senators on the Committee — particularly the Democrats — immediately began attacking the testimony of those supporting the bill. One Senator repeatedly stated that the bill had not been worked on long enough; the bills she works on, it seems, take even longer than 10 years to pass. Another Senator dismissed my testimony, saying “There are always two sides of every story.” Other Senators were equally dismissive. Still others spent the entire meeting on their iPads, not even paying attention.

It seems that, to the Democrats, support of the bill would undermine women’s rights. But, as the grandmother testified, as a feminist she is offended by the current law. She said that feminists like her fought in the 1970s for equality, not for laws that favor women.

However, the bulk of the discussion among the Senators themselves was around selfishness. They brought the lobbyist for the divorce lawyers back to the table to answer their questions, and almost all of the questions were regarding how the law would be abused if it were amended. The consensus among the Democrats is that those who want the bill changed are simply wanting to get out of child support payments. That’s it. That’s why we want more time with our kids, so that we can make lower payments.

I find this kind of thinking odious and offensive, especially from supposed “liberals.” And it reminds me of a quote I recently saw on Brian McLaren’s blog; it comes from Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I’ll close with this quote, because it explains to me the closed-mindedness of the Democrat Senators on that committee:

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Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

The bill, in it’s gutted form, passed out of committee on a straight party-line vote. It went on to two other committees. God only knows if it will ever get to the Senate floor for a vote.

This post was written by Tony Jones and originally published on the  Tony Jones Blog. Follow him on Twiter: @jonestony.

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