Sunday, June 1, 2003

Fox puts county courthouse on trial

County Commissioner Mike Fox wanted to let a little air and sunlight in - so he blew the roof off the Butler County courthouse. His thick report, "A Culture of Secrecy, Fear and Judicial Abuse," offers a peek inside the juvenile and divorce courtrooms most of us gratefully never see.

Fox paints a vivid picture in neon colors: Judges with nearly absolute power to decide on property, child custody and alimony in hearings so secret even the families can't get in. In bold brush strokes, Fox lays on accusations of unpunished perjury, corruption, conflicts of interest and abuse of individual rights.

"The outrage is muted by an incestuous network of insiders who are spared ... public scrutiny by a system that operates behind locked doors," he says.

He describes clandestine meetings with lawyers who were afraid to risk judges' wrath by being seen with him in public. He cites complaints from citizens whose rights have been abused by "a system so prostituted that protections essential to the integrity of the justice system take a back seat to the comfort and convenience of insiders. Citizens ... are treated like extraneous nuisances whose main purpose is to provide a pretext for the insiders to make a living."

The judges' defense

It's eye-stinging stuff - strong enough to bleach a judge's robe white.

But the main target, Domestic Relations Judge Leslie Spillane, says it's over the top. "Mike hurls these awful accusations and raises suspicions, and then Mike moves on to another target after he has done incalculable damage," she said.

"You have to bear in mind, he's talking about approximately six cases in the past 15 years. We hear 3,000 new cases every year."

One charge by Fox: "Judge Spillane, Judge (David) Niehaus and the magistrates have routinely held hearings behind closed doors, excluding the parties."

Spillane says those are meetings to work out procedural details, not hearings. "There's no reason a person would want to be there and lose a day of work," she said. "We never hold hearings in the absence of the parties unless they fail to appear. I'm not going to say it never, never happened, but it would be very, very rare."

This battle started, like many wars, in France. Spillane requested travel expenses to Paris in 1999 - Fox rejected her trip. She attacked his travel expenses in the press, and both kept pouring lighter fluid on the bonfire.

Fox's latest report hosed the flames with a gasoline tanker.

Spillane says the judges will reply to his documented charges with their own napalm report in a few weeks. They've asked for a grand jury or Justice Department investigation to exonerate them.

Fair questions

An investigation is a good idea. Fox used a Daisy Cutter to open a window in a stuffy room. But he raised questions for all juvenile and domestic relations courts: How much power and secrecy is too much?

These courts deal with the most emotionally explosive cases. Kids often need to be protected from their own bitter and angry parents. But Fox is right: Most people don't know their rights, and they can be easily manipulated by cynical lawyers and a system that can be jaded and callous. Even one family wrecked by unchecked power is one too many.

Spillane said she has read the report once. "Given my history with Mike Fox, I have a hard time ascribing any good ideas to him, but I will try to keep my mind open," she said.

If she doesn't, Fox might be back with some TNT.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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