Brawl in the Family

Six Sacramentans sock it to the family-law system

Photo by David Jayne

Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, home of the most degrading spectacle on Earth! We’ve got a stellar lineup of pissed-off local litigants for you this week, headlined by none other than Tony “The Tiger” Lopez, (see “Tiger by the Tail,”) Sacramento’s only three-time world boxing champion!

It’s going to be a bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred slugfest as these courageous combatants wage a David-vs.-Goliath struggle against the undefeated champion of the family-law system, the system itself.

For the challengers, the stakes couldn’t be higher: the future of their own flesh and blood.

They have a formidable opponent in the vast network of judges, attorneys, psychologists and social workers that comprises the family-law legal system in Sacramento. With so many human components, it is of course highly fallible. Nevertheless, the system is always right. It ultimately decides what is in the “best interest of the child,” even if that means cutting the baby in half. That’s the privilege of being the champ.

Think of an ornery big brother holding his little brother at arm’s length as little brother flails away. That’s what it’s been like for our challengers, who’ve collectively spent millions trying to dethrone the champ. No matter how many punches they land, the decision always goes against them. Yet they keep coming back for rematches, time and again. Hell hath no fury like a litigant disgruntled, particularly when the best interests of his or her child are at stake.

Representing the system for this week’s event is Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Peter J. “Chainsaw” McBrien, whose ruthless tactics both in and outside the arena of family law are by now legendary. Block the view of his home, and he’ll saw down your trees. Cross him in court, and he’ll force your attorney to hold her water. Or go behind your back and get you fired from your state job. Or end the trial before you’ve had a chance to present your case in chief.

He’s one tough bastard, and he’s given all of this week’s opponents fits in the ring (see “Down by Law.”) According to court documents, when Tim Maxwell divorced his wife, McBrien gave her and her boyfriend the house; he got the trailer. McBrien separated Mary Kravitz from her children in court, then presided over a trial that destroyed Kravitz financially and emotionally.

McBrien, however, is not invincible. This week, we’ll also preview next week’s title bout between the judge and challenger Ulf Carlsson, to be held at the California Commission on Judicial Performance in downtown Sacramento (see “The fighting Swede.”) Carlsson’s already defeated McBrien once in the state appellate court, and there’s at least a slim chance the judge could be removed from the bench.

Should that come to pass, it will be viewed as a knockout punch by opponents of the wildly unpredictable family-law system. Granted, McBrien is just one irritable cog in the machine, but his actions have come to represent the system’s most dramatic excesses. The system won’t fall if he goes down, but it just might get the message: People are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore.

It may be tempting to write off the complaints of our challengers as sour grapes. But keep in mind that because children are involved, parents who’ve been thumped by the system are reluctant to go public. When they do, they come prepared. There are no holds barred at the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, where fortunes are lost, families destroyed and hearts torn asunder, seemingly at random.

Are you ready to rumble?