Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
I’ve recently rotated back into a domestic relations division for the first time in years. I’m getting reacquainted with an area of law that I haven’t had to deal with in some time, which includes everything from refreshing my memory of the law to learning what the current jargon and acronyms mean. It occurred to me that domestic issues are frequently the subject of movies: sometimes serious, sometimes funny; sometimes with great actors, sometimes with people you never heard of; sometimes Oscar winners, and sometimes simply unwatchable. I decided that while I’m in this rotation, I’ll write about domestic themes on occasion, starting with this month, when I want to discuss three movies about child custody that reflect changing concepts about that emotional area, while also reflecting ideas that stay constant.
Man on Fire (1957) is a movie that was ahead of its time: it starts out with Dad having sole custody of the divorced couple’s son. Since the “tender years” doctrine was alive and well in most of the United States at that time, this was highly unusual. Dad loves his son very much, but is bitter toward his ex-wife, who has recently remarried to a State Department diplomat. The ex-wife initiates a custody battle, which is fought out in court. The judge awards full custody to Mom, and Dad goes off the rails. The child runs away, and soon we’re involved in a potential parental kidnapping. You’ll need to see the movie to find out how it resolves.
Man on Fire features a stunning performance by Bing Crosby (!) in a non-singing dramatic role, as the successful businessman father, Earl Carleton—and contrary to Crosby’s usual film persona, he is not a nice guy that you can immediately take into your heart. The film also features Inger Stevens in her film debut. The courtroom scenes are rough, and the way the parents go at each other is both uncomfortable and realistic.
In 1964, One Potato, Two Potato explored custody issues as well, but this time in the context of an interracial marriage. The film stars Barbara Barrie as a white divorcee who marries an African-American co-worker, played by Bernie Hamilton. The ex-husband (Richard Mulligan) shows up, and demands custody of his daughter, based solely on the idea that being raised in an interracial home was the wrong thing for the child. A court battle ensues, and you may be surprised by the result—or not. (Don’t forget that Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, wasn’t decided until 1967.)
Barrie won the Best Actress award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie was extremely popular with critics when it was released; indeed, it has been referred to as a “critic’s darling.” I remember seeing this movie when it was released (I was sixteen) and thinking it was seriously cutting edge. Having watched it again recently, I’m not sure that it’s aged that well, and you can find some critics whose retrospective analysis of the film is fairly negative. However, it gets very high grades from viewer reviews on both the IMDb and TCM websites. This isn’t an easy movie to find, although it was on TCM recently. Given our current social climate, perhaps you’ll find the issues raised by One Potato, Two Potato still timely and worthy of discussion. If nothing else, it demonstrates that perhaps we haven’t made the progress on racial matters that we’d like to believe we have.
For my last film about custody, I’d like to offer 2001’s I Am Sam. Sean Penn, who was nominated for an Oscar, stars as a developmental disabled man with an intelligent, precocious daughter, Lucy, played by Dakota Fanning. Lucy’s mother has abandoned them, but Sam does his best to raise his daughter, helped by a network of friends and other supportive people. As you might expect (this being a Hollywood movie), problems arise and Sam eventually loses custody of his daughter and is forced into supervised parenting time. Sam is referred to an aggressive lawyer (Michelle Peiffer) with a reputation as someone without much empathy or humanity. She decides to take Sam’s case, and as they prepare for court, Sam actually helps the lawyer solve some of her own personal problems. Once again, we get to watch extremely uncomfortable courtroom scenes, once again with a somewhat predictable result. But unlike some other movies of this genre, this one has a positive ending, one for which I have a special fondness, for reasons that you’ll see.
Of interest to me in these movies was that their focus is almost exclusively on the adults involved, rather than the kids, although I Am Sam is slightly better than the other two on that account. I suppose this isn’t surprising, given that the movies were made by adults to be watched by adults. But it also should serve as reminder of where our ultimate focus must be in real-life courtrooms. Many states, including Colorado, use a “best interest of the child” test when deciding issues of parental responsibility and parenting time—and that requires that our primary concern must be for the children caught up in the maelstrom of domestic cases, to give them the best chance to be safe and happy.
The best of what we learn about teaching and justice, of how we work intensely together to learn, of how we seek to instill the true advocacy that redeems justice . . . these things we carry forward from those who went first. They donated the foundation of our teaching, and the spirit and brilliance of our collaboration. Whether founder, designer, creator, faculty, trustee, or author, each person’s excellence in working with the NITA community is still the essence that contributes to NITA result.
At this start of the year, when we are fresh with news of recent losses, we do well to reflect on the way each person contributed. They knew what they brought. Their vision in contributing was to make a difference then and after they were gone. Yes, they had expectations of the everlasting value of their NITA work.
As we work within the NITA community, as we welcome our compatriots and revel in gathering each time a faculty is assembled, let us remember this: We are entrusted with fulfilling not only our goals but also the expectations of these great lawyer/teachers who went before us. They expected that newcomers would bring their genuine best, spar and give, create and critique, build bonds, and cultivate friendships. We do that still, and will into the future.
This NITA community is about honoring those we work with today for the very reason that we work together. It is about the larger vision of justice, which would be neither a formed goal nor an achievable mission without our community of sharing.
In tribute to the collective that is NITA, I draw from our NITA Community pages the names of those who have appeared there over the past year. I would prefer to honor all whom we’ve lost. Our lesson is drawn well, however, from this sampling. Look at the diversity of traits remembered throughout these pages about each of these NITA members at the time of their passing. Take them each as a reverent reflection. Take them together, and we know what they expect of us.
Carry it on. Carry it on.
“her life’s mission to work with women working to achieve success”
“playfulness, the kind that creates collegial learning”
“the fine art of gentlemanly advocacy in the courtroom”
“resolve, determination and contagious sense of humor as he prosecuted his cases”
“free penchant for arguing and teasing, for quick funny references, for repartee, and for being one’s self”
“his insight into justice, what justice requires, and how much injustice exists that is to be addressed and reversed”
“talent, leadership, and strong resolve to do the right things the right way”
“contributions that accentuated her keen eye for service to the public interest in justice”
“trial skills, humor, and humanity that made him both dangerous in the courtroom and a joy in the classroom”
Karen M. Lockwood, Esq.
President and Executive Director
National Institute for Trial Advocacy
Baker & McKenzie Partner Named Chair of the Board
BOULDER, CO: The National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA) has announced its new Board officers for 2015. Angela C. Vigil, a partner in the Miami office of Baker & McKenzie as well as the firm’s Director of Pro Bono and Community Service for North America, has been elected as the Board Chair. “I am honored and humbled to have been chosen to serve as Board Chair. From the time I first encountered NITA I have had the great pleasure of serving as a faculty member in public and public interest programs throughout the United States and in a number of foreign countries,” Vigil said.
Additional Board Officers for 2015:
Michael H. Ginsberg, Past Chair
L. Joseph Loveland, Chair Elect & Treasurer
Senior Litigation Partner
King & Spalding
Geraldine Sumter, Secretary
Ferguson Stein Chambers et al
“After more than 40 years of service to the profession, NITA remains the premier lawyer training organization. I deeply appreciate NITA’s commitment to and focus on the development of the Rule of Law in emerging countries and its support of the mission of public interest legal organizations, as well as its commitment to training lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates.” Vigil continued.
About the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA): NITA is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, is a dedicated team of professors, judges and practicing lawyers who believe that skilled and ethical advocacy is a critical component of legal professionalism and all systems of dispute resolution that seek justice.
Colorado and NITA lost a great trial lawyer, teacher, and friend on January 1, 2015, with the passing of William L. Keating. Bill had that great combination of trial skills, humor, and humanity that made him both dangerous in the courtroom and a joy in the classroom. His skills as story teller brought his cases to life and his willingness to share mastering that process made him popular and respected as an advocacy teacher.
Keating was raised in Chicago, and earned a BA from the University of Michigan. Following his graduation, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Colorado so he could play for the Denver Broncos. After his playing days, he attended the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, earning his JD in 1971. Following graduation, he was a judicial clerk in the 10th Circuit for Honorable Robert McWilliams. He was a founding partner of Keating Wagner Polidori Free. For over forty years he dedicated his professional life to helping those in need. Keating was a past president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers and a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Association of Barristers, and the American Board of Trial Advocates. In 2002 he was honored by the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association with its Kenneth Norman Kripke Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2012, he received the Thompson G. Marsh Award from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. The Marsh Award was presented for outstanding accomplishment throughout Keating’s career.
As trial lawyer, teacher, and mentor Bill Keating will be missed by his friends in the NITA family.
NITA is proud to announce the most recent recipients of the Advocate Designation. This designation is awarded to a person who has taken a well-rounded set of courses, proving they are serious about trial advocacy.