Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the right . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendent to the US Constitution
In Jeralyn's post below, she discusses a Newsweek article that discusses 2005 (when Sarah Palin was
the Mayor of Wasilla a private citizen) statements made by the Alaska family court judge handling the divorce and custody dispute between Palin's sister and her ex-brother in law Morgan Wooten. While Jeralyn and other bloggers see this as a strong indictment against Palin, I was struck by the actions of the judge. Some points stand out for me. First was the judge's inflammatory use of the phrase "emotional child abuse" due to complaints by the Palin family to the government about the conduct of Wooten, an Alaska state trooper. Second was the court's admonition to the Palin family to stop their complaints to the government about Wooten.
While the issue of speech from family members to children has been the subject of family court orders (and even these restrictions are not uncontroversial, see, e.g. Eugene Volokh on the issue), it is new to my experience to see a judge in any setting order a non-party to cease and desist from "petitioning the government for redress." I'll explain my concerns in more detail on the flip side.
Here is what the Newsweek article reports:
Court records obtained by NEWSWEEK show that during the course of divorce hearings three years ago, Judge John Suddock heard testimony from an official of the Alaska State Troopers' union about how Sarah Palinthen a private citizenand members of her family, including her father and daughter, lodged up to a dozen complaints against Wooten with the state police. The union official told the judge that he had never before been asked to appear as a divorce-case witness, that the union believed family complaints against Wooten were "not job-related," and that Wooten was being "harassed" by Palin and other family members.
(Emphasis supplied.) Let's consider what is wrong with this picture. A UNION official testified to a family court judge about the complaints to the government by PRIVATE citizens against a state employee. These were not complaints about statements being made to the children - but about statements being made to the government. The First Amendment clearly states that the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" shall not be abridged. And yet this Alaska family court judge was considering such abridgement. And indeed, appears to have written an order abridging such constitutional rights:
Court documents show that Judge Suddock was disturbed by the alleged attacks by Palin and her family members on Wooten's behavior and character. "Disparaging will not be toleratedit is a form of child abuse," the judge told a settlement hearing in October 2005, according to typed notes of the proceedings. The judge added: "Relatives cannot disparage either. If occurs [sic] the parent needs to set boundaries for their relatives."
I am no family lawyer, but I can read the Constitution as well as the next person. Judge Suddock apparently took it upon himself to prohibit the filing of grievances by the Palin family, beyond the litigant, Palin's sister, with the government of Alaska. This seems incredible to me. An abuse of power, if you will.
Consider just one allegation against Wooten - that he threatened to kill Sarah Palin's father. Is Judge Suddock really stating that such a threat could not be reported? Indeed, would he not want to know of this threat himself? Apparently not:
As the divorce case dragged on, the judge's concern about family "disparagement" appeared to deepen. In an order signed Jan. 31, 2006, which granted Palin's sister and Wooten a final divorce decree, Judge Suddock continued to express concern about attacks by Palin's family on Wooten. The judge even threatened to curb Palin's sister's child custody rights if family criticism of Wooten continued. In monitoring how a joint-custody arrangement worked out, the judge said in his order that he would pay particular attention to problems noted by a "custody investigator," specifically "the disparagement of the father [Wooten] by the mother [Molly Hackett, Sarah Palin's sister] and her family members."
(Emphasis supplied.) Indeed, look at how Newsweek describes "the continued disparagement of Wooten" by the Palin family:
Palin and her husband continued to make disparaging allegations against Wooten, even after she went to the statehouse. During her first security briefing with a representative of the state police, Palin and Todd were both asked whether they knew of any potential physical threats against them, according to a deposition taken from one of Palin's top aides following her election in Nov. 2006. Both said the only threat they were aware of was posed by Wooten.
That is indeed disparaging of Wooten. Should there be consequences to the custody status of the children of Sarah Palin's sister because the Palins reported Wooten as a threat to their security? This is what Judge Suddock's order would seem to require.
And just last week, Sarah Palin "violated" Judge Suddock's order yet again:
In a press release issued last week by her new lawyer, Palin continued to attack the character of Wootenstill serving as a state trooper in Palin's hometown of Wasilla. The release repeats allegations that Wooten had threatened members of her family, including her father, with violence; that Wooten had threatened to "bring" Palin and members of her family "down;" and that Wooten had once been the subject of a court-imposed domestic-violence protection order.
(Emphasis supplied.) What will judge Suddock do now? If he believes his order was sound and right, doesn't he need to alter the custody status of the children of Wooten and Palin's sister? Who wants to bet that he says nothing. And whither then the outrage about this?
Here's my bottom line politically - let this alone Democrats. The facts are bad on this and the actions (or likely inactions now) of Judge Suddock are impossible to defend. But I await instruction from family law practitioners here to lecture me how Alaska family law court orders trump the First Amendment.
By Big Tent Democrat, speaking for me only