The Worst Judge in the History of the WorldWho is the worst judge ever? Unfortunately there are all too many judges who would qualify for their cruel responses that hurt protective mothers and place children in jeopardy. I am sure many of my readers have someone they are sure is the worst judge. Howard Spitz was the first judge I referred to as the worst ever. He was one of the villains in the “believer story” that I often tell and which provided the inspiration for me to write my first book. Three brave children told the judge, CPS caseworker, evaluator and their law guardian that their father had physically and sexually abused them. The abusive father started using his belt to punish the children when they were one-year-old and his paddle when they were two. As often happens in these cases, the professionals whose job it was to protect the children assumed the mother convinced them to lie. The judge threatened to take custody from the mother if she didn’t stop and ordered normal visitation to resume the next weekend. Before the first visitation could occur, the father was confronted by the family baby sitter in the presence of the law guardian and he admitted kissing his daughters on their privates. The law guardian immediately made a motion to stop the visitation and I joined her motion. The judge consulted the evaluator who said the father showed bad judgment but there was no reason to stop the visitation. Judge Spitz ordered the children to go for unsupervised visitation, during which the 4 year old would be penetrated for the first time. I called CPS to report the father as the agency was unaware of the father’s admission when they closed the case. When Judge Spitz learned of my report he yelled and screamed at me saying the case was already investigated and they found nothing. A new caseworker did a more thorough investigation and learned the father had committed far worse abuse than we were aware of. CPS brought charges against the father and he never again had any visitation that was not supervised to protect the children. The law guardian quite properly advised me to avoid participation in the case and limit the mother’s role because the judge was still so hostile to us. You would think a judge would be sorry for what he put the children through and grateful that my actions helped save them from his mistake. Instead he was angry and hostile towards me whenever I appeared before him. As a result I felt compelled to tell potential clients that if the case involved Judge Spitz, my participation in the case would cause him to be biased against them.
The Notorious Shockome CaseI had been practicing law for over 25 years when I entered the Shockome case. In every previous case the initial hearing would consist of the judge listening to one side and then inviting the other side to respond. Judge Damian Amodeo operated very differently. He allowed the abuser’s attorney to go on at length with a litany of charges (but never during the case did they offer evidence to support their claims). Judge Amodeo never allowed the mother to respond. She was denied an attorney because the judge unilaterally moved the hearing up. On the transcript the mother is heard saying when is my turn. The judge responded by talking over her and threatening to hold her in contempt. Despite never hearing the mother’s response, the judge expressed his intention to give the abuser custody. He did this a few months later without an evidentiary hearing as required by law. There was a problem in Dutchess County with the custody court routinely favoring abusive fathers. The DV community provided an unusual level of support to the mother because her case was so strong and they were concerned about the bias against protective mothers. At every court appearance a dozen or more advocates sat in the courtroom to support the mother. During my first appearance, Judge Amodeo immediately called a lawyer’s conference. The first thing he said was that he would not be intimidated by the women in the court. This seemed odd as they were just sitting in court respectfully. He was obviously very defensive about his response to domestic violence. I started by explaining my background as a DV expert because I wanted to discuss current research which demonstrated the extreme order giving the abuser custody and mother supervised visitation is always wrong. This finding would later be confirmed by the Saunders’ study from the US Justice Department. Judge Amodeo immediately responded with a lengthy recitation of why he believed he was an expert in domestic violence. I had never tried a contested case in which the evidence was so one-sided. The father was the only witness for his side and was forced to make many admissions. He said that he couldn’t change his daughter’s diaper because he might get too excited. He didn’t help with the house and kids because that was women’s work. He explained his motives for seeking custody saying he brought his wife to the US from Russia so she had no right to leave and would never get away from him. The mother called 11 witnesses including five experts and neutral professionals like the school nurse, couple’s counselor and child’s therapist. Judge Amodeo already knew the result he wanted and evidently was concerned with a record where all the experts proved he was wrong. In the middle of the case, after most of our experts had testified he called a conference to propose the appointment of an evaluator. I said I would only agree if it was someone with DV expertise. Judge Amodeo responded that he wanted someone with a little knowledge of DV but not too much because such experts always find abuse. He appointed an evaluator with little experience who exaggerated her qualifications. I contacted the Women’s Justice Center at Pace Law School and they wrote a letter to the judge expressing concern about the evaluator’s claims to have worked with them. Judge Amodeo was angry not at the evaluator for padding her experience but with me for contacting the Justice Center. The judge asked his evaluator to give an opinion on two issues; the mother’s reports of domestic violence and the father’s claim of alienation. The evaluator said she could not determine the extent of the father’s abuse to a CERTAINTY and so ignored the issue but said the mother PROBABLY made more negative statements about the father than the father made about the mother. A first year law student would know that using a certainty standard against the mother and the normal probability (preponderance of the evidence) for the father is a fundamental violation of due process and equal protection. Nevertheless, Judge Amodeo used the evaluator’s findings to justify his decision and never discussed this clear Constitutional violation although I raised the issue clearly and repeatedly. Judge Amodeo had put in place his prejudicial arrangement of custody for the abusive father and supervised visits for the mother so any delay benefited the father and harmed the children. The judge repeatedly gave inadequate days for trial and then we had to wait many months for additional trial dates. At one point I decided to make a motion for a decision on the mother’s petition for a protective order. This is an emergency application but a year later the trial continued with no end in sight. One of the advocates who was in court each day wrote an affidavit in support of our motion. In one of the scariest moments in an already frightening case, Judge Amodeo yelled and screamed at the advocates in the court room. He said that based on his gag order they were not permitted to speak with anyone. Twice Judge Amodeo banged his gavel on the bench and yelled ANYONE. He threatened to hold the advocates in contempt and put them in jail. It happened that our witness that day was the mother’s DV advocate. I asked her what her job is as an advocate and she explained that it is scary for victims to be in the court with their abuser and they don’t always hear everything said. So the advocate needs to discuss what happened in court. At the end of the testimony, Judge Amodeo claimed he had not said the advocates could not speak with the mother. When we received the transcript, the judge’s statements and threats were mysteriously missing. When Judge Amodeo brought the evaluator into the case, we had already presented most of our witnesses including our experts. The judge said he would only allow a psychologist to testify in rebuttal. This unreasonable limitation was later proven baseless in the Saunders’ Study which found that social workers make better recommendations in DV cases than psychologists. The judge repeatedly promised that we could call Dr. Mo Therese Hannah who is one of the best psychologists in the country regarding DV issues. She had already been qualified as an expert in the case. At the last minute the judge made an excuse to prevent any rebuttal testimony because he didn’t want anything on the record that pointed out her many obvious errors. Perhaps the most bizarre part of the judge’s decision making the harmful outcome permanent was his discussion of the PTSD issue. The mother was diagnosed with PTSD by her therapist and medical doctor. The judge’s evaluator agreed and the only possible cause was the long history of the father’s abuse. The mother suffered panic attacks when the abusive father called her and on one occasion when the law guardian who aggressively advocated for the father also called. All of the experts agreed that panic attacks could be caused by benign circumstances (i.e. fear of public speaking), but PTSD could only be caused by severe or repeated trauma. This finding was a problem for the judge who wanted to deny the mother’s reports of domestic violence and had promised to return custody to the mother if the father’s DV was proven. Judge Amodeo concocted an explanation that was physically and psychologically impossible. He said the mother badly wanted custody and when the judge told her she might not receive custody this somehow caused her PTSD. In later writings I interpreted this with the support of consulting with Dr. Hannah, in the only way possible. The judge was saying in effect that he caused her PTSD. Since only extreme abuse and trauma could cause PTSD, he was in effect admitting horrifically mistreating the mother. Not surprisingly, Judge Amodeo did not like my interpretation, but could offer no other interpretation that fit the undisputed evidence. He would later use my interpretation in his retaliation complaint against me. The underlying divorce case was held in abeyance for over two years as the judge took his time on custody and the protective order. Once he gave his preordained decision he wanted to quickly finish the divorce before the appeal could be heard. I received a call from the court for a routine hearing on short notice on a day I was scheduled for trial in the afternoon in the Bronx. I asked for an adjournment which should have been routine but was denied. When I hung up the phone my heart was beating very fast and I felt ill. I called back and requested an adjournment for health reasons and again this was denied. When I came to court I felt the same symptoms and made a motion to withdraw for health reasons. Judge Amodeo took a look at me and decided I was not that sick. He demanded affidavits from my medical providers. I submitted affidavits from my medical doctor and therapist that it was unhealthy for me to continue given the way he was treating me. He was shocked that the doctors supported my position and did not want his mistreatment as part of the record. He waited a few months and then allowed me to withdraw based on a prior request of the client to represent herself which occurred before I made the medical motion. Judge Amodeo’s medical expertise turned out to be as bad as his understanding of the case. I suffered a heart attack shortly before I was scheduled to make oral arguments for the appeal. The judge later called an emergency hearing on the father’s petition to be allowed to move with the children to Texas. This forced the mother to go to court without an attorney and with no advocates to support her. As the judge was making findings the mother disagreed with she kept saying “objection.” Judge Amodeo yelled at her to be quiet and threatened to hold her in contempt. He never told her that she had preserved her right to appeal. She was afraid that if she didn’t keep objecting she would lose her right to appeal and never see her children again. Judge Amodeo treated her objections as if they constituted contempt and sent her to jail for almost a month despite the fact she was 7 months pregnant and the doctor wanted her on bedrest. In response to this mistreatment of the mother, I wrote an article in which I asked the legislature to pass what I called “Genia’s Law” so that no other mothers could be mistreated this way. Judge Amodeo responded to my exercise of my First Amendment rights by filing a retaliatory complaint against me with the Grievance Committee. When he came to testify he suddenly could not remember any of the incidents in the case that is the most famous of his career. It didn’t matter. No evidence was required as his colleagues blindly deferred to him. A couple of years later, Dutchess County suffered a series of DV homicides. The County Legislature asked a citizen’s committee of law enforcement and other professionals to examine the county response to DV. One of the findings was that battered women either never sought help in court or stopped after seeing the system was biased in favor of abusers. This was especially true in the custody courts. Victims found it was safer to try to deal with their abusers alone than to have the judges helping the abusers. In other words that flawed and biased practices in the custody courts was an important contributing factor to the series of homicides. Most of what I had complained of and predicted turned out to be accurate. Judge Amodeo kept control over the case as long as he could so someone more objective wouldn’t correct his mistakes. When the Texas court took jurisdiction they quickly recognized that the mother should have custody. They scheduled therapy sessions with the mother and children to repair the damage done by the father. It was too late. The children who had once been so close to their mother refused to resume the relationship. When the children lived with the mother they had regular contact with the father. Judge Amodeo focused on unscientific alienation theories and the myth of false reports by mothers, as Saunders found unqualified professionals do. As often happens in these cases, once the abusers gain control they use their power to destroy the mothers’ relationships because they was their purpose in seeking custody.
Sending Children to JailJudge Lisa Gorcyca demonstrated a clear lack of understanding concerning domestic violence. She discredited reports of domestic violence based on information that is not probative and then closed her mind to any information that undermined her assumptions. During the Tsimhoni case she stated that the father could not be an abuser because he doesn’t have a criminal conviction or restraining order against him and has a good reputation in the community. If the judge had the proper training she would know that domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes and it is common for abusers to avoid any accountability. She should also know that how abusers act in the outside world is often very different than what their families see in the privacy of the home. Unfortunately these mistakes are all too common in the broken custody court system. Judge Gorcyca also created what the Saunders’ study refers to as a “harmful outcome” case. These are extreme outcomes in which the alleged abuser is given custody and safe protective mothers who are the children’s primary attachment figures are limited to supervised or no visitation. These outcomes are always wrong because the harm of denying children a normal relationship with their primary attachment figure, a harm that includes increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide when older is greater than any benefit the court thought it was creating. The Saunders’ study found that these outcomes are usually based on the use of very flawed practices which is certainly true in the Tsimhoni case. It is usually the worst judges who create harmful outcome cases but they are all too common. Fundamentally these are cases in which the courts seek to punish mothers in ways that actually punish the children. In most of these cases the judges’ desire to punish the mother is based on the judge’s failure to recognize true reports of abuse. Judge Gorcyca also created a gag order. Although the claimed purpose is to protect the privacy of the children (which clearly did not work), but the real purpose is to shield the judge from accountability. There are serious First Amendment problems with gag orders and many courts have ruled them unconstitutional. There is also a serious ethical issue based on the conflict of interest. The judge is issuing a decision that benefits the judge by interfering with the ability of the media and public to discuss any mistakes or improprieties committed by the judge. At the very least this creates an unacceptable appearance of a conflict of interest. Judge Gorcyca took her crusade to outrageous and relatively rare levels by jailing the three minor children (sending them to a juvenile facility) and making gratuitous attacks on the children such as comparing them to Charles Manson. The judge’s actions demonstrate that she had lost all sense of objectivity and proportion and was seeking to punish the children rather than act in their best interests. Judge Gorcyca only removed herself from the case after the Judicial Tenure Commission filed charges against her. It is disconcerting that all of the egregious actions discussed above did not lead to her ouster. Only reports that she also lied to the judiciary were sufficient to end her rein of terror against the Tsimhoni children.
The Broken Custody Courts Are an Institutional FailureThere are many more horrific judges I could have written about and I know my readers could document many more candidates for this “honor.” In the batterer program I teach in we have a saying “hate the game not the players.” The quote has to do with the overarching role of sexism and values that tolerate men’s abuse of women. In the case of the custody courts, it is the outdated and discredited practices that permeate the system and allow professionals to feel good about decisions that destroy lives. Many good judges are unaware of the problematic practices of their colleagues. Even worse, there is a tendency of courts to protect bad judges out of concern that holding them accountable would undermine the reputation and authority of the courts. They don’t realize that tolerating the inexcusable practices is far worse for their reputation and more so for the children whose lives are ruined. One of the problems with overcoming oppressions like racism and sexism is that they are designed so that good people can engage in the offensive behavior without realizing they are doing it. The same thing is true of many of the flawed practices judges routinely use. This is why those of us who want to reform the broken system need to be thoughtful about how to approach the courts. We need to change the discussion because it is a discussion the good side keeps losing. I love the ACE and Saunders’ Research because they provide a good opportunity to change the discussion. For the same reason I believe the Safe Child Act is the best chance to create the comprehensive reforms that are needed. The children are our constant reminders about why we must keep doing this work rather than fall for the understandable inclination to just blast the judges who are causing so much harm.
The Worst Lawyer in the History of the WorldUnlike the question about judges, this question is easy. During my work on the Shockome case, I had occasion to appear on a television interview program with the mother. The host asked me what kind of lawyer I was. I felt compelled to tell the truth. I said I am the worst lawyer in the history of the world. How else can I explain how I could keep losing the strongest possible cases?
Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker, and advocate.
Barry has written some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody.