Disorder in the Family Court
A newspaper article sets off alarm bells about Family Court judge candidates and their stances on domestic violence
A Sparks Tribune article published last month created a stir in the Washoe County Courthouse and domestic-violence circles, being passed from hand to hand and raising concern that none of the four candidates to replace retiring Family Court Judge Scott Jordan support the temporary-protection-order process and that all are hostile to the principal local domestic-abuse agency.
Judges, court administrators and advocates for domestic-abuse victims who read the article were also alarmed by the apparent lack of familiarity of the candidates with the job of Family Court judge.
The article described a meeting of Nevadans for Equal Parenting at which all four candidates spoke. It portrayed the four—Elizabeth Cannon Lynch, Pete Sferrazza, Myra Sheehan and Chuck Weller—as being less than friendly toward the Committee to Aid Abused Women (CAAW) and the county Temporary Protection Order Office, which is administered by CAAW. It also quoted them describing the temporary-protection-order (TPO) process incorrectly: “For example, all four candidates more or less agreed with Nevadans for Equal Parenting’s stance that temporary restraining orders shouldn’t be issued by a non-profit contractor, the Committee to Aid Abused Women, or CAAW.”
This claim by candidates that CAAW or the TPO Office issues protection orders was repeated more than once in the article, but in fact neither office issues them. Only District Court judges issue TPOs. The TPO Office merely processes the applications for protection orders.
Temporary protection orders tell someone to stay away from a spouse or domestic partner. They are issued after a judge receives a complaint from one person in a household, and a hearing is usually provided to the other person within 10 days.
The RN&R e-mailed the Tribune article to the four candidates and asked if they were quoted correctly. Only Sferrazza identified the claim that CAAW or the TPO Office issues protection orders as a misquotation of his statements; the others let those quotations stand, though Sheehan later said in a phone interview that she too was aware of the inaccuracy. Sferrazza replied, “I know that CAAW doesn’t issue restraining orders.”
Chuck Weller was the most outspoken about the TPO Office—or at least was so portrayed in the article, saying that the office brings women applicants inside the office, while male applicants must fill out their forms in the hallway. (A video clip of Weller’s remarks is posted on the Nevadans for Equal Parenting Web page.) He also said, “You shouldn’t have to go to an organization that has the name of the opposite gender in it.” He repeated this in an email message to the RN&R: “Forcing an abused man to go to an organization named the Committee to Aid Abused Women adds additional stress to an already horrible situation.”
However, the name of CAAW (which at its own office serves both men and women) does not appear at the TPO Office. The sign on its office door reads, “Protection order advocate’s office/Room 308.” Within the office, according to applicants interviewed, the CAAW name is not heard except for referrals to shelters or other services.
TPO Office Director Barbara Spring says, “Our pamphlet explains the process, and it has the name of CAAW on it because they paid to print it. But we don’t hand those out to everyone; we only hand them out to people who need to know what constitutes a domestic relationship or other issues that affect their application.”
CAAW director Joni Kaiser says, “Nobody goes around telling the Boy Scouts to change their name, or the YMCA … It’s only because it’s women that it’s an issue.”
UNR women’s studies instructor Rebecca Thomas, a former TPO Office director, agrees with that, saying the criticism of the TPO Office is a reflection of the demonizing of women’s issues.
“You don’t hear candidates talking this way about children’s issues,” she said.
As for the lack of space for male applicants, that is not the responsibility of CAAW or the TPO Office. When the courthouse annex was being designed, CAAW proposed separate rooms in the TPO Office for men and women, which was incorporated into the design and built. But District Court judges needing space for a self-help legal clinic later took over the men’s space on the ground that it was little used.
Aside from the issues raised by the Tribune article, the candidates don’t seem to assign domestic violence a high priority. In candidate statements describing their positions on issues in the race filed with the Washoe County Registrar of Voters and posted online, only one of the four (Lynch Cannon) includes even a passing mention of the issue.
Sheehan says one of the reasons none of the candidates spoke up to defend CAAW was that the question asked by Nevadans for Equal Parenting (NEP) did not actually mention CAAW. She said the question was along the lines of, “If there is a group within the courthouse that’s biased, should they be in that courthouse?” Sheehan said everyone in the room knew who NEP was claiming to describe.
In addition, Sheehan said that, because of the nature of NEP, “I think that anybody who was going to jump out there and defend CAAW was going to put themselves in a pretty ugly situation.” NEP is a mostly male group of people unhappy with their treatment in court. Its phone number is unlisted, and only a post office box is listed on its Web site, so the group could not be reached for comment.
“I think there is a huge perception that the TPO project is biased against men, but I don’t know that it’s a truism,” Sheehan added. “I think there is a perception of that, and I think it needs to be addressed … because it damages the program.”
Lynch Cannon said, “There needs to first be a determination on some sort of empirical basis of whether or not there is a bias going on” before addressing it. Otherwise, she says, public officials will just be reacting to perceptions and anecdotal complaints instead of solid information.
Weller agrees with that, saying that he’s seen two or three angry letters to the editor and an essay in the Gazette-Journal and doesn’t know whether that represents community sentiment or not. “You know, let’s know if we’re talking about anecdotes or reality here.”
Sferrazza says that, as a county commissioner, he has raised questions about CAAW administering the office, but because no one else wanted the contract, he voted to award it to CAAW. Kaiser responds, “I keep telling them, you know, I tell the county, ‘You want the contract, you take it back, babe. You run an office on 70 thousand a year. Go for it … You don’t like our name, you do it.’ You know? Nobody wants to do it, though.” She says she is disinclined to apologize for serving women.
The Tribune article quoted an audience member as saying that women can get TPOs issued merely by saying they feel threatened, while men must "prove actual physical abuse." Nevada District Judge Deborah Schumacher flatly denies this, saying that "there are no separate statutes, there are no separate grounds for men and women," either in law or in practice.