BY CHRIS SZABLA
Alec Baldwin is on a roll – just recently, the affable actor won an Emmy Award for his role on the critically-acclaimed sitcom, 30 Rock. But the 50 year old Baldwin wasn’t smiling when he entered Ames Courtroom last Thursday, September 25. He was making his second appearance at HLS to engage in a serious discussion with Professor Jeannie Suk on the problems of divorce courts and custody proceedings.
Baldwin’s encounter with the world of family law began in 2000, when he and his then-wife Kim Basinger agreed to separate. The proceedings dragged on to 2004, when the two were awarded joint custody of their daughter, Ireland Eliesse. In 2007, when Ireland failed to answer a call from her father, Baldwin left a now-famous phone message deriding her as a “rude, thoughtless little pig”. A recording of the comment was released to the media, and it immediately set off a firestorm. It also led to a messy lawsuit in which Baldwin accused Basinger of leaking the tape.
Against this backdrop, Baldwin’s frustration with the family law system – which he saw extending far beyond courts and into the mindsets and attitudes of the public at large – was palpable throughout his discussion with Suk. Baldwin said his new book, which chronicles the experience of his divorce, was filled with “pain, regreat, and anger about the law,” as well as his “frustration [and] confusion with the [legal] process”. His custody battle, he reported, was “arduous, slow, glacial”.
Baldwin reserved much of his consternation for the gender biases which he believes pervade family law. He was concerned when, from the outset, he was assured the specific custody officer his case had been assigned was noted as “good for fathers”. “It was troubling,” he observed, “that other [custody offices] might have been bad.”
Professor Suk noted that Baldwin’s experiences of gender bias had led him to become a pioneer of the fathers’ rights movement in California. Baldwin, pointing out that this effort now went by the term “shared parenting”, discussed his reasons for becoming involved.
Different genders, he noted, were tarred with different stereotypes by courts – men were seen, in particular, as “abusers”. “Men walk into a courtroom with a cloud of male aggression overshadowing them,” Baldwin said. Adversaries in custody proceedings could often reconstruct otherwise neutral events post facto, he claimed, by using courts’ presumptions of male behavior to make them seem like episodes of abuse.
Professor Suk agreed at least that the definition of violence had expanded too far; any instance of “bad behavior” could be used to determine that custody by a parent might not be in the best interest of a child. “The pendulum has swung too far,” Baldwin concurred, recounting an incident in which a representative of the National Organization for Women told him the group thought of wrongfully-convicted men as “collateral damage” as long as one abused spouse or child could be saved under the current legal regime.
As a consequence of such sentiments, Baldwin asserted, fathers were often alienated from their children throughout divorce proceedings, and sometimes for long thereafter. He emotionally recounted how the fathers of children’s friends came to play more of a role in their lives than their own, and how fathers would wind up spending more time talking to lawyers than to their children. The actor characterized parental alienation as a form of child abuse itself.
Baldwin went on to propose a new default rule for custody proceedings. Currently, he said, courts had extensively broad discretion in such cases. He called for a presumption of innocence, and a standard of shared, 50-50 custody – unless a party could prove something fundamentally wrong with the parenting skills of the other. Professor Suk worried that this would award custody to parents who did not really want it, creating a market for parents to bargain with money over who actually cared for children.
Even if his proposals were adopted, however, Baldwin believes the legal system is plagued by more fundamental problems. He took aim, for example, at the opacity of the legal profession. “Most people are suspicious of the legal community, and it’s only going to get worse,” he said, recounting his experiences dealing with divorce lawyers in Beverly Hills. “It’s like being in a foreign land. You have no idea what they’re saying; you can only hope that they’re representing your position in their conversation.”
Baldwin had no less harsh criticism for judges, whom, Baldwin believed, whether appointed or elected, made decisions based on political pressure. Most of the latitude within the courts, he continued, belonged to powerful law firms. The role of money was powerful in divorce cases, he said, observing that cases were made to drag on much longer than necessary because of the obstacles presented by wealthy couples’ lawyers.
To Baldwin, the lack of oversight that ordinary people could exercise over law meant that the legal system looked like “a game two lawyers play…if a guy cuts another guy’s throat, and he wins, it’s a game. Nothing that looks or smells like justice,” Baldwin concluded, “walks into an American courtroom anymore.”