The fighting Swede

He’s lost his marriage, his job and his daughter, but Ulf Carlsson isn’t giving up

Photo By David Jayne

They have a saying in Sweden: Don’t get mad. That’s it. That’s the saying. But since first tangling with Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Peter J. “Chainsaw” McBrien in 2004, Sacramento resident Ulf Carlsson has been one angry Swede.

Born in Sweden, Carlsson, 46, spent his childhood in the Middle East, then studied architecture and French at UC Davis. He got married, had a daughter and settled into a successful career with the state Department of General Services. When his marriage came apart after 17 years, McBrien presided over Carlsson’s divorce trial.

McBrien’s bobbing, weaving style in the ring paralyzed the younger, less experienced litigant. When Carlsson’s attorney requested a bathroom break, the judge threatened to call a mistrial because the divorce case wasn’t moving along fast enough. Yet when a side issue of whether one of Carlsson’s real-estate investments had been properly registered with the state was raised in passing, McBrien went on a lengthy fishing expedition to find out more about it. Then, before Carlsson had a chance to present his case in chief, the judge unilaterally declared the trial was over and walked out of the courtroom. That’s all, folks.

McBrien later rendered a decision highly favorable to Carlsson’s ex-wife. According to the system, it’s all in the best interest of the child. But what happened next wasn’t in anybody’s interest, the father, mother or child.

Shortly after Carlsson appealed McBrien’s decision, the portion of the trial transcript containing McBrien’s inquiries in Carlsson’s investment was sent to the Department of General Services. Instead of being allowed to pay the Fair Political Practices Commission for what is acknowledged to be a confusion regulation, Carlsson was fired from his $100,000 a year state job. Among other things, it made it pretty damn tough to pay the court-ordered child support.

The angry Swede was on the ropes. Then, suddenly, the match turned. Filing an appeal in a divorce is akin to throwing a wild haymaker in the hopes of knocking out your superior opponent. Carlsson’s swing didn’t connect until 2006, when the 3rd District Court of Appeals reversed McBrien’s decision.

It seems the three-judge panel couldn’t find a single instance of a judge walking out on a trial before it was finished. It was like Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear off and spitting it out on the canvas. It just doesn’t happen. The state Supreme Court couldn’t believe it either, and published the decision, setting a precedent. Bite off an ear, automatic mistrial.

Next week, the state Commission on Judicial Performance—which sets the standards for fair play in the ring—will determine what sanctions, if any, McBrien should receive for the highly unorthodox and heretofore unheard of maneuver. The potential punishment ranges from private admonition to ejection from the league à la baseball’s Pete Rose. Carlsson is awaiting the hearing with anxious anticipation.

“In my heart, I have a feeling he’s definitely going to be removed from the bench,” says the Swede. “If he isn’t removed from the bench, there’s no justice in this country.”

Between attorney fees, loss of property and the loss of his job, Carlsson figures the ordeal has cost him $1 million. The contentious case has estranged him from his 16-year-old-daugher, who lives with his ex-wife.

“There’s no relationship at all,” he says. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cry about it. It’s been very painful.”

Whatever the outcome of next week’s hearing, Carlsson plans to continue fighting the family-law system. He’s recently set up a Web site,, as well as a political-action committee. Working with other beat-down opponents of the system, he’s helped develop a set of specific reforms that could be enacted right away.

“A court reporter should be required at every hearing and all trials, and the court should pay for it,” he says. Currently, if a litigant wants a court reporter, he or she has to pay for it, $300 per day. “Without an official transcript, there’s no way to hold judges accountable.”

The same principle applies to attorneys.

“If you can’t afford an attorney, the court should appoint one for you,” he says. “If you don’t have an attorney, you’re screwed. If the court had to pay for it, they’d look at settling some of these cases a little faster.”

Presently, Carlsson says, there’s just too much money to be made in the system. In addition attorney fees, litigants are forced to pay for court-ordered psychological examinations. Because the tax code only allows one parent to declare the child as a dependent, parents engage in a game of tug-the-arms-off-the-kid competing for the deduction.

“We believe it should be a percentage,” Carlsson says. If you have 50 percent custody, you should get to declare 50 percent of the tax deduction. “That way there’s no conflict. You’re not yanking the kid back and forth.”

Carlsson’s goal? Reforming the system.

“I want to go straight to Washington, D.C., one day, and testify before Congress,” he says defiantly. “I want to expose the corruption in the family-law system. It’s destroying our children’s lives.”