THE PARNELL CUSTODY TRIAL When the Reach Exceeds the Grasp

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Child custody trials can be interesting; alas, not as riveting as the clients seem to think. The Parnell trial pitted an ex Army ranger turned novelist/ U.S. Senate candidate against his former wife. The stakes were three children ranging in age from 8 to 12.

As the trial began two factors made it seem especially peculiar. The parties already were sharing legal and physical custody. That usually means 50/50. And Mr. Parnell was running for a national office which would essentially put him “on the road” for the next year. If he succeeded in the election, he would hold office for six more years in a place almost 250 miles from the place where he shared custody. The judge assigned to the case is responsible for assaying the facts “on the ground.” Those facts were that a person running for state office is expected to visit almost every one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and to appear in several of those places (Philly, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Harrisburg, Erie) a lot to do fundraising for a multi-million dollar campaign. If Parnell lost in next May’s primary he would be back to novel-writing. And if he won it all, Parnell would have a job where the Senate is in “session” 175-200 days a year.

The second thing that was perplexing was the “domestic history”. As we wrote about a month ago allegations surfaced that Parnell was physically aggressive with his former wife and his children. The first case was withdrawn. The second went to trial and was dismissed. Objectively, Parnell had to know these facts would re-surface. His response was to try to keep the public away from the record. This reflects a level of naivete which many smart folks seem to allow to overtake them when custody issues are involved.

The theme here is that many custody litigants fall in love with their cases while ignoring the realities. And in the end, yes, you can lose ground in terms of access to your kids. I have observed intelligent people sit in the witness box and tell the court that they work 12 hour days while professing that they need more time with their children. How is a judge supposed to process that except that ego has triumphed over intelligence? Mr. Parnell walked into court with joint physical and legal custody of three kids. He departed without legal custody and with three weekends a month.

Appearances also matter. Apparently the judge commented on Mr. Parnell’s attire. Many would profess that that’s not a custody factor and should not become one. But, while the case was in trial I saw a photo of Mr. Parnell and his girlfriend holding hands while approaching the courtroom. Both were attired in blue jeans. Handsome outfits both if headed to the town picnic. But this was a custody trial where lawyers and judges are required to wear suits/ties/robes. I noticed also because boyfriends and girlfriends are not typically welcome figures in custody courtrooms except to testify that they (a) like the kids in controversy and (b) understand the “boundary” between a parent and a step-parent or romantic partner.  If your case is built around the parenting skills of someone who is not the child’s biological parent (e.g., my girlfriend teaches childhood development at Pitt) prepare to experience some pained look from the judge or hearing officer in charge.

If you are inclined to seek more custody and put yourself and your kids through that process, check your ego at the door. Because that can be difficult, ask your lawyer “What will the other side argue?” “What are their best facts?” One of the killer questions on cross examination is when you are asked “What qualities does your ex-spouse have as a parent?”

The irony here is that Sean Parnell thought he could have it all. Primary custody and nomination to a Senate seat with the endorsement of President No. 45. A custody trial eviscerated both of those dreams because, like a lot of people today, he walked into court without a clear vision of what he needed to present and what he would encounter in defense.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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