I teach the Judicial Externship Seminar at DU Law School. My students are working with judges in courtrooms from county to supreme courts and in administrative courts as well. We discuss a number of topics, including why people hate lawyers and are so afraid of the legal system. One thing I suggest to them is that the adversary system of justice encourages negative feelings; after all, every American court case has two things in common: a winner and a loser, and that’s bound to generate bad feelings.
But there’s one exception to that model: a non-contested adoption. Everyone who’s participated in one will tell you that while there may be tears, they are happy tears, and there is much more laughter than crying.
Since this month’s topic is advocacy for children, I decided to focus on three movies where children’s issues play a big part – and are not secondary to the parents’ divorce, as in Kramer v. Kramer. One is a horror story, one is a comedy, and the third is one of the best legal movies you never heard of.
The horror story is, of course, Mommie Dearest (which I’m sure many of you figured out from the “wire hangers” reference). Released in 1981, it was based on a book of the same name and tells the story of Joan Crawford, the Hollywood star of the ’30s and ’40s and the appalling relationship she had with her two adopted children, Christina (who wrote the book) and Christopher. Crawford was portrayed by Faye Dunaway, in one of the most over-the-top performances you will ever see. This film had a decidedly mixed reception. Some critics loved it, although the late Roger Ebert started his review by writing: “I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie.” Mommie Dearest was nominated for five Razzie Awards, and Dunaway won one for Worst Actress of the Year. In fact, this movie won a Razzie for Worst Movie of the Decade! But over time, the movie has developed a cult following and, while grotesque in many ways, can serve as a case study of what happens when adoptive parents are not carefully screened and adoptions are not carefully monitored. Don’t be fooled, though. Mommie Dearest is frightening enough and violent enough that the faint of heart should think hard before watching it.
In stark contrast is 1965’s A Thousand Clowns, starring Jason Robards as an unemployed TV writer, Murray Burns. Murray has guardianship of his nephew Nick, and comes under the scrutiny of social services because of his lack of a job, his unconventional lifestyle, and the freedom he allows Nick to have. (Nick is allowed to choose his own name, and goes by several as the movie progresses.) Murray and one of the investigating social workers start a relationship and as their love grows, Murray has to make some very tough choices, including whether to go back to a job he absolutely despises, writing for a children’s TV host named Chuckles the Clown. The movie spends a lot of time talking about freedom, conformity, the demands of “regular” living and other ’60s-type topics — although Murray is most definitely not a flower child. This movie will make you laugh, but it will also make you think. It’s one of those movies that I’m always thrilled to see when it makes a rare appearance on television. It will not give you nightmares, I promise.
Finally, the movie that’s the best legal movie you never heard of. Evelyn was released in 2002 and is “loosely based” on the true story of an Irish father battling the legal system and the Catholic Church to regain custody of his children. Pierce Brosnan (!) stars as Desmond Doyle, the father of Evelyn and two boys. The mother abandons them, and Desmond signs the kids over to the Ministry of Education, which places the children in separate Church-run orphanages, one for boys and one for girls. When Desmond decides he wants the children back, he is confronted with an anomaly in the law that, on its face, makes it impossible for him to do that. Desmond has no job, he drinks, and he has a lady friend he cannot marry, because, of course, in Ireland in the ’50s, he cannot divorce. But he believes his children are better off together — and better off with him. He comes to the attention of lawyers who decide to join his fight. The movie tells a stirring story of how this seemingly mismatched crew battles through the trial court level to the Supreme Court of Ireland, where its goal is to change not only the specific law that hamstrings Desmond, but also the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the Irish Constitution. The decision is found at In re Doyle  Irish Law Rep. Monthly 277 — but what does it say that the actual decision was rendered in 1955, but not published for fourteen years? This is a wonderful film for many reasons, not the least of which is the tension between what is right and what is legal, a tension that every lawyer and every judge will face in their legal lives.
All of this month’s movies should remind us how often children are made to suffer from the application of laws that are supposedly designed to help or protect them. They should also remind us that children deserve the best advocates that can be found — and trained. Whenever I teach a child advocacy program, I come away with a sense of awe for the dedication to justice shown by those who work in this field. They work there with little recognition, little support, and little monetary reward. Yet they are doing work that can only be described as noble. If you’ve never helped teach a child advocacy program, try to find one. Both you and the participants you teach will be the better for it.
NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.
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