Gender in the Courtroom
Fights about gender and bias in the courtroom have been going on for decades in this country, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of the fight dying down anytime soon. An uptick in that debate happened recently when Governor Walker vetoed another alimony and time sharing bill that had heavy support from the community.
The past 40-50 years, and prior to that too, have seen enormous swings in what courts view as fair treatment of each partner, with wide variations between the states. As a lawyer, my first duty is to fight for my client’s side but my ability to fight is constrained by the laws of the jurisdiction I practice in. Depending on prior case law in an area, the current laws, challenges to those laws, the judge, public sentiment, and many other factors, my arguments must change to meet these conditions.
Sometimes in the course of advocating for a client, a family lawyer will use gender roles in their arguments. Indeed, there is an entire industry of family lawyers that focus solely on supporting only men or women in divorce cases. Many of us know these gender-based arguments thanks to popular culture, and there are some pretty ugly assumptions about both genders that feed into some very real problems in this country. For instance, one bias is that men will always be able to make more money than women and have the primary responsibility of men is to make money. This is just one bias that has led to Florida’s current lifetime alimony laws. Those laws in practice have now pushed the public to fight for reform.
Let’s take a look at the time sharing agreement clause that was the main cause of the veto. It would have required the courts to start with an assumption that both parents should receive equal time sharing with children after a divorce. While this could be altered, of course, the assumption would be there. Thus, the courts wouldn’t have been able to let personal bias say that a mother automatically deserves more time with her children than a father, which is the usual bias.
Many Floridians were in support of this bill, as high as 70% by some reports. Several states have already implemented similar measures to good effect. There are a large number of children who were raised without their fathers being in their lives thanks to the actions of the courts. Many of them are now adults and are speaking out about their experiences growing up without a father and how it affected them. Some social scientists also study this problem and sometimes endure huge backlashes for having the courage to study these issues.
All of this data helps lawmakers make decisions. Clearly, some of the members of the Florida Congress saw that there was a significant problem with alimony and time sharing in Florida and sought to change the law twice now. Given the high support of the bill by the public and the overwhelming majorities the bill had before it went to the governor, it is likely that alimony reform is a matter of when, not if.