Courting trouble

Court figures struggle with how to do their jobs and still live normal lives

Judge Charles McGee met with reporters Friday to talk about the difficulties of being a family court judge.

Judge Charles McGee met with reporters Friday to talk about the difficulties of being a family court judge.

Photo By Dennis Myers

The judge was discussing the case before him—a property dispute—after hearing an afternoon of testimony. The people in the courtroom were listening to Nevada District Judge Jon Collins—except for Robert Williams, one of the litigants. Instead of listening to the judge, whose first words apparently had made it clear that the decision was going against him, Williams was whispering urgently to his attorney to tell the judge something.

“I just got through telling him to listen to the court’s decision,” his attorney Samuel Francovich later said. “I told him to shut up and accept the decision. He shut up, all right. He pulled the gun and started blasting.”

It was Thanksgiving eve, 1960. When Williams was finished, his wife’s attorney, Eli Livierato, was dead and two other people were injured. One of them, attorney Edwin Mulcahy, later died of his wounds.

There was huge publicity for a while, then a trial and conviction for the Reno gravel pit operator. There is a plaque in the courthouse memorializing the two dead lawyers. It would be decades before that kind of violence was seen in a Washoe County courthouse again.

The family court concept did not yet exist, and the Williams case was not a divorce case, but it was a property dispute between a separated wife and husband.

What is it about family law cases that seem to unhinge some people? In the wake of the shooting of Judge Charles “Chuck” Weller last week, Judge Charles McGee called it “true diagnosable mental disorders—paranoid schizophrenia.”

On a CNN program the same day, Los Angeles psychologist Bethany Marshall said, “Well, I mean, we know that [Reno suspect] Darren Mack did have a history because he went through a very contentious divorce in a prior marriage. But … about these judges being frightened and rightfully sometimes fearing for their lives—let‘s say you have an abuser coming into court, and he‘s been used to controlling his wife, and he’s had firm, tight control over her. And all of a sudden, there’s another man in charge. There’s the judge. What is he going to do? He’s going to feel destabilized. He’s going to become paranoid and perhaps even strike out at the third party, who he feels is intervening in his marriage, and that’s the judge. And we know a lot of times, these men and sometimes women, they strike out at the children, as well. They use them as pawns. And what they’re trying to do is punish the spouse because they feel that the spouse has rejected them, is now bad, and deserves to be punished.”

The shooting of Judge Charles Weller and murder of Charla Mack last week, together with the police pursuit of fugitive Darren Mack, have drawn local attention like never before to the ordeal experienced not just by family court judges, but also by those who surround them—court employees, victims’ advocates, family members and so on.

“When I worked in family court,” said UNR instructor Rebecca Thomas, “a batterer in a TPO [temporary protection order] case made a death threat toward me. The court took it seriously, and the Washoe County sheriffs at the court house looked out for me. I think the [court] masters who handle domestic violence cases are at particular risk. They preside over cases where at least one person has acted violently already. The stress level of people who work in family courts is very high. It is difficult to carry that stress because so few people really understand the level of anger and violence that is being dealt with every moment of every day. I have heard those who work in family court describe it as the ‘war zone,’ and I know what they mean.”

McGee said last week that increasing security isn’t the answer. “You know, I stood with the bailiff the other day, and if you look out from the third floor, there are about 12 buildings that have a line of fire into those windows. So, do you close the windows? I mean, should a courthouse be Armageddon? I don’t think so. You put bulletproof glass in there, that’d be nice. But I don’t know how much extra security you can bring to a place where people come all pent up with their emotions.”

McGee also said there is another difficulty. Because of ethical rules, it is difficult for one judge to warn another judge about a litigant he believes to be unstable. For instance, Judge McGee dealt with Darren Mack’s first divorce, which he said “was also a donnybrook.” But if McGee had known that the second divorce was in Judge Weller’s court, he would not have been able to warn Weller. “So if I go in and [say], ‘This guy’s a complete hothead, I think he’s going to go off’ or something like that, it betrays a bias. So it’s Russian roulette.”

In a joint statement last week, judges McGee and Scott Jordan said, “In our opinion, accompanying the near absolute right we have to speak freely is a moral duty to exercise that right responsibly. And we are concerned that the extensive media coverage of this week’s tragic events in Reno also resulted in the wide dissemination of several comments about Judge Weller that were written by people with questionable motives. Publicizing such unsubstantiated opinions does a disservice to Judge Weller and does not meet the fairness test. In addition, giving a legitimate venue to those comments gives credibility to anonymous, one-sided, and emotion-fueled tirades which deserve none and can easily inspire others who are disgruntled with a divorce settlement to decide that taking matters in their own hands is acceptable. It is not.”

The RN&R last week published a report on spiteful online messages that attacked Judge Weller, some of those messages written after he was shot. The report contained quotations from the messages in order to communicate to readers the maliciousness of the postings. The report also contained messages critical of the anti-Weller postings or supportive of Weller rulings.

One difference between the 1960 courthouse shootings and those last week is that if Robert Williams had a legitimate grievance, it got lost and was never heard of again after his behavior in the courtroom. In 2006, there have been plenty of people—from online bloggers to a CNN producer—who have been willing to sympathetically make Darren Mack’s case for him.