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April 17, 2008

Custody Hearings Begin in Polygamy Ranch Case

I haven't posted on the polygamist ranch case yet because the whole thing creeps me out. It's not so much the unusual marriage situation that included not just polygamy, but also wife-swaps. Rather, the way these poor folks seem genuinely happy about their isolated, throwback lives. The choices they make are disturbing because they are so alien, and so I've been sort of avoiding the story.

But this deserves a mention. Hundreds of lawyers have volunteered to represent the children pro bono, several of them from some of the most prestigious law firms in the country. The Texas bar has no pro bono work requirement. The initial hearing--a joint hearing--started today. It was a circus.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther struggled to keep order as she faced 100 lawyers in her 80-year-old Tom Green County courtroom and several hundred more participating over a grainy video feed from an ornate City Hall auditorium two blocks away.

The hearing disintegrated quickly into a barrage of shouted objections and attempts to file motions, with lawyers for the children objecting to objections made by the parents' attorneys. When the judge sustained an objection to the prolonged questioning of the state trooper, the lawyers cheered.

Upon another objection about the proper admission of medical records of the children, the judge threw up her hands.

"I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, `Yes, Judge'?" she said.

In both buildings, the hundreds of lawyers stood and responded in unison: "Yes, Judge."

It's hard to imagine that justice will be served in this fashion. The state is having trouble finding and admitting evidence about what went on at "the ranch"--partly because the children are tight-lipped around "hostile and immoral" outsiders--and they're having to house the 416 children while this goes on. The parents' attorneys' are having to contend with the state attorneys for ultimate custody, but also with the childrens' court-appointed attorneys.

I don't envy the judge at all. What if the evidence shows that the girls were forced into underage marriages to older men? It's possible that will be enough to declare that the other girls cannot be allowed to return, for fear of abuses in the future. But if that's all the state can show, does that mean it has to return the boys? Can the judge rule against a lifestyle? The consequences would be disturbing for everyone.

MORE: Thanks to Dawnsblood for posting the link to DRJ's coverage at Patterico's, which I hadn't seen. It gives a much better picture of what was going on at the ranch and in the courtroom.

Texas is not equipped to deal with this many custody cases simultaneously. The judge told lawyers today that she is adopting a "looser procedure" to deal with the case. I'm sure that has the parents' attorneys drawing up appeals strategy already.

This also gives me some pause:

12:34 [pm] - But the massive proceedings donít turn on a dime, and another attorney issues an objection regarding freedom of religion.

Walther takes a direct route, saying she isnít dealing with freedom of religion objections at this point, ďbut Iíll take it under advisement.Ē

I don't know what Texas trial procedure is like, or if there is an abbreviated procedure for child custody hearings, but the fact that the judge appears unwilling to rule on objections is a problem.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 11:41 PM

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