The scuffed, multicolored vinyl tile floors lead to modest wooden doors with a cheap gold-plated sign featuring amateurish font. The federal district courthouse is just six blocks away, but the world seems different in the circuit courthouse of Baltimore City. And it’s more than its lack of a rich, marble aesthetic.
I open the courtroom door expecting to sneak into the back without eliciting any provocation. But I quickly find I won’t be able to disappear in a room with six pews and as many persons. My eyes widen – everything and everyone seems so close – almost too close – as if I have stumbled in on a secret. Am I in the right place? I take the closest seat in the last row. The seat frames a view of the plaintiff’s backside, chewing gum stuck to the second-row, defendant’s side-profile, green commercial carpet, and a judge with eyes that ostensibly pierce through my soul. I’m sensing an accusatory stare; I probably did something wrong. Maybe I’m in the wrong place.
Hearing the sound of a certain name sends a chill running up my arm. For whatever reason, I’m supposed to be here. I only catch a brief snapshot, the tail-end of this pro-se divorce case between Mr. and Ms. Waters, but I’m astounded at how the legal system functions without attorneys representing the parties’ best interests. Admittedly, it’s my first time seeing a pro-se case. But, in my mind, nothing underscores the need for legal representation more than parties advocating pro-se.
Classroom discussions on formulating policies and legal rules to reduce the potential for fraud and manipulation by sophisticated parties could not be further from my mind. I’m looking at a man, wearing faded blue work jeans and a Roca Wear hoodie, unable to grasp the concept of cross-examination. Defendant Mr. Waters wants to get it on court record that he had left his wife because she cheated on him, but he stumbles on how to introduce this information. The Hon. Julie R. Rubin orders Mr. Waters to refrain from making affirmative statements. He tries again, to no avail. The judge is growing noticeably annoyed with his failed attempts.
“Maybe you could help me out here, I’ve never done this before,” he implores the judge. “I can’t do that,” the judge continues, “that would be unethical.” The man says he doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to do, then sits down. Just like that he has waived his right to cross-examine a person he may end up having to pay alimony to for the rest of his life. I feel uneasy. It shouldn’t be that easy. When the defendant is finally given the floor to testify, he gets up, receives an instruction from the judge, and then sits back down. He musters up eight words: “I just want to get this over with.”
Rubin grants absolute divorce, but denies alimony. The plaintiff is struggling to pay her $680 rent, but she is self-sufficient, the judge concludes. The parties’ living standard has not changed materially or substantially upon separation. That the defendant earns a greater wage is not enough to find for alimony. Equitable adjustment is reflected in the transfer from joint title to plaintiff’s sole title of a Hyundai vehicle valued at $2,100.
An absolute divorce involving a property transfer – if that’s the reason I’m supposed to be here, it’s depressing. It can’t be the reason. So I await the next case. Two audience members transform into pro-se legal parties as they each find their way to the table – requiring clerical instruction on seating arrangements. In the crisscross to their seats, the tension between them is palpable.
Plaintiff Mr. Wright is seeking sole custody of his 10-year-old son A. Wright and Ms. Smith (A’s mother) failed to resolve the dispute in mediation. The judge explains the distinction between joint legal custody and joint physical custody, and then outlines the best-interests-of-the-child standard. It sounds like an audio-taped version of my family law notes. Wright alters his claim to joint legal and physical custody, asking for “50/50” because sole custody “would be unreasonable.”
The judge asks the plaintiff why ordering joint custody would be in A’s best interest. “Every other child, you know, needs their father,” Wright says. The response is inarticulate, but appears heartfelt. A has been living with his mom. Wright talks about how he hasn’t spent a night with his son in seven years. The last time he saw A was by chance in a parking lot about a month ago. I can barely hear.
Smith and Wright live minutes apart from each other, but they’re far from a solid relationship. Wright brands their relationship as “poor.” Although they have known each other for more than two decades, they separated when A was 3 years old. Rubin predictably asks the plaintiff to describe his communication with A’s mother. “Kind of rough and rocky,” he says, “not a whole lot of communication.” I can almost hear an echoing “It’s-all-over” sports-fan chant. I find myself leaning forward. A part of me desperately wants to tell this guy to emphasize that, although he and Smith haven’t seen eye-to-eye in the past on a lot of things, he knows the two of them could discuss parenting decisions because they both want what is best for their son. I don’t remember wanting to interject when I was watching drug conspiracy cases in federal court. Something about hearing these stories hits me at a gut level.
Wright says that he pays $1,150 monthly rent, living in his mother’s 5-bedroom house with his two 30-something-year-old brothers. Rubin asks about how many people are living in the house. The plaintiff stutters talking about his brothers’ romantic relationships. “I don’t care about relationships,” the judge says. Her response is brusque and imprecise, but its recipient gets the message. Four bedrooms are consistently occupied. The fifth room is set up as a bedroom used when Wright’s nieces and nephews “hang out for a weekend.”
The judge asks Wright why A’s mother wouldn’t allow him to be around her son. He’s reluctant to answer, but, with some prodding, he finally admits that Smith told him he was a “dangerous person.” The judge pauses, then asks, “Do you believe that there was ever a time when you were living a dangerous lifestyle?” “I wouldn’t say dangerous,” the plaintiff pauses, “but we do things from time to time to pay the bills.” Rubin doesn’t probe the nature of his past work. The judge is more focused on the man standing before her today. Nowadays, Wright makes all of his child support payments by working as a technician at Sears Electric, earning an $18.88 hourly wage. Still, the judge shows she is taking account of his past behavior by asking him about any history of violence between the parties. The plaintiff characterizes it as “basic arguments where the police were involved.” But, he says, A never saw them fighting.
Rubin asks the plaintiff to explain why he should get partial custody. Wright talks about his relationship with his other three children, saying he’s an “excellent dad,” who teaches his 6-year-old son about work tools, “plays tea” and “dress-up” with his 4-year-old daughter and regularly texts his 18-year-old daughter. To me, he sounds like a changed guy with a troubled past.
Smith stands up at the chance to cross-examine her former partner. She asks Wright if he lives in his mother’s house. The plaintiff only, sort of, mutters an answer. “Did I tell you (that) you could come around (to see A)?” Wright answers yes, but indicates he wants to explain. The judge informs him he can clarify later. Smith asks again, “Do you really live in (your mom’s house)?” She must know something. Rubin glares at the plaintiff, who offers a vague answer. The defendant concludes her interrogation.
“I’m going to butt my nose in here,’” the judge says, reminding Wright that he is under oath. “Where do you live?” she pauses, “How often do you sleep (at your mother’s house)?” “I sleep there sometimes,” Wright answers. “I know your mother told you not to be cute. Don’t get cute with me. How often do you sleep (there)?” It’s the kind of fiery line I had envisioned verbalized exclusively in Court TV courtrooms. “Every so often,” Wright says. “I’m going to give you one more time to give me a straight answer,” the judge says. Vague answers have escalated a simple testimony on residence into cause for concern. Rubin tells Wright he is being “evasive” and “nonresponsive,” and that “every so often” is not a residence. She repeats the question. The plaintiff says he stays at his mother’s house once or twice a month, normally sleeping at his girlfriend’s house.
The judge’s facial expression radically transforms as she asks for his girlfriend’s address. “I can’t give that information out,” he says. “Why not?” the judge asks immediately. Wright claims he doesn’t feel “comfortable” with Smith knowing “anything about (him) not pertaining to (their) son.” An obvious retort from the judge follows: “It is pertinent to your son.” The plaintiff won’t offer an address. It’s a bad move. Infuriated with the plaintiff’s responses, Rubin asserts that it’s not up to Wright to determine what is relevant. “So far, you’ve lost a lot of credibility with me,” she says. It doesn’t feel like I’m in a courtroom anymore. The atmosphere suddenly feels more like a principal’s office. Everything feels closer than before. The judge calls for a recess. It won’t be the last time.
A few minutes pass before the plaintiff asks a court official to “talk to the judge in private.” The judge returns, demanding an address. But the plaintiff isn’t budging. He doesn’t want the defendant to know where he lives because of their “situation.” He claims to feel “unsafe,” before rambling about “walking on eggshells” and fearing for his life as the defendant has allegedly filed restraining orders and false police reports. The judge looks at Wright with sheer disbelief. “I don’t find you credible,” she says.
Rubin tries a different route. First, she explains that the onerous is on her to determine the child’s best interest, which requires that she know where A might safely “lay his head.” Next, she talks about referring the matter before an adoption and custody investigation to fulfill her obligation to A. The plaintiff’s willingness to show the court where he lives is making it “virtually impossible” for the judge to give Wright what he is seeking. Wright is about to interject when the judge warns him that he is “perilously close to being in contempt of court.” He offers a piece of scrap paper with the address. The judge promptly refuses to accept the scribble. While this isn’t a negotiation, Rubin and Wright have appeared to reach an impasse. Rubin calls for recess. She wants to reconvene at 1:30 p.m. Smith has an appointment with A’s school at that time. “The court is not in a position to accommodate,” the judge quips. I imagine the judge’s frustration is reaching boiling point. And I understand the court’s interest in efficiency. But, in this moment, I can only think that the best interests of the child sounds more like contorted lip-service, taking a backseat to the supposed adults in the hot-seat and high-seat of this courtroom. But the judge proves me wrong. She returns early and announces that Smith might be able to make the meeting. I’m starting to admire her commitment. I doubt I could exhibit the level of patience she is showing.
The court turns to Smith’s testimony. “I’ve never stopped Mr. Wright from doing a lot,” Smith says. She still invites him to A’s football games because she wants to give him a chance to show that he has changed. Wright and Smith had only been separated for three months when he strangled her neck, sending her to the hospital. Another shiver follows another name that pops into my head. Smith enters her medical records into evidence. The judge instructs her to show the plaintiff. He refuses to look at the documents. Rubin enters his refusal into the records, then proceeds to ask him if he has any objections on admissibility grounds. The judge jumps on Wright’s “yes” practically as fast as he mutters the word. What’s the basis for objecting to something he hasn’t even glanced at? The judge has him stumped. He makes arguments addressing weight, not admissibility. Rubin appends the documented harm into evidence. Defendant continues testifying. “My neighbor told me,” she says before the judge cuts her off. Rubin doesn’t want to hear about what Smith’s neighbor told her; that’s hearsay. I need to brush-up on my hearsay “work-arounds.” And these parties need attorneys. Smith then tries to enter an investigative report from Child Protective Services that clears her current husband. CPS concluded that the 10-year-old boy had gotten his bruises playing football. Plaintiff looks at the CPS report and objects, saying “it’s fake.” Because the defendant can’t call anyone to swear to its authenticity, the judge sustains the objection. I wonder if an affidavit would have sufficed. It’s the first time all semester that I wish I was carrying my evidence text book. I want to know the answer. But it’s more than just a thirst for knowledge; everything in my gut now wants to help Smith make her case.
Now it’s Smith’s turn to explain why she should get sole custody. “I’m there,” Smith answers. It’s a simple answer that means everything. Smith works two full-time jobs: one as an assisted-living employee and another as a mom. She feeds her two children, pays for their home, shuffles her son to all of his football practices, and helps him control his asthma and his temper. Smith trained to operate an inhaler, nebulizer and oxygen – devices A uses to manage asthma attacks. She also brought her son to a child psychologist as a preventative measure to help him deal with anger issues. It’s unclear if Wright has changed, but one thing is for certain: Smith is absolutely dedicated to her son’s welfare. She epitomizes the rationale for a legal presumption that a fit parent will look out for her child’s best interest.
Plaintiff’s cross examination of Smith offers no new evidence to the court record. The judge rules that one of his questions is irrelevant. Wright was already facing an uphill battle after the residence debacle. He needed something substantial on cross. He too needed a lawyer. His closing statement is weak. It’s also interrupted by a phone call. When the judge hears the ringing she shoots a glare into the gallery. “Leave the courtroom,” the judge says. “Leave the courtroom.” The ringing is emerging from the plaintiff’s pocket. It’s his phone. I start to wonder how much he really wants this. When the judge realizes the ringing is the plaintiff’s phone, she orders the bailiff to seize it. “I’ve been more than patient,” Wright says. I imagine the judge is ruminating over that word in its present context. Wright continues, “I’ve done everything in my power (to not let my son) be a part of this system.” I think about how difficult it must have been for Smith to seek out resources, disclose her abuse and file a protective order. What Smith lacks in stature, she makes up for in inner-strength. I hope I can find half of that strength as an advocate.
Rubin combs through the basics: the most important factor in shared custody is the ability to communicate, making joint physical and legal custody unworkable in this case. She accounts for a volatile history of alleged domestic violence as she looks to make arrangements that best protect the child. However, she doesn’t find it credible that Smith poses any physical threat to Wright. Unsurprisingly, the judge says, “the court is very disturbed by (Wright’s) lack of forthrightness.” She “has no idea” of A’s potential living situation to grant joint custody. Still, even if Wright had been forthright, he would not have been awarded joint custody because of how long he has been away from A. It would be “too much, too fast (and) too soon,” the judge says. While Rubin doesn’t find a history of voluntary abandonment, she notes that Wright has had “vary spare contact” with A, who is now a 10-year-old boy with a stable home life.
The ruling is obvious to everyone – everyone except Wright. The court grants Ms. Smith sole physical and legal custody of – and Wright gets up before Rubin can finish her sentence. He’s darting to the door. The judge tells him he isn’t entitled to leave the courtroom. “Sign away my parental rights,” he says. “Don’t let the end of the day end with you being in handcuffs,” the judge advises. The bailiff ushers him back from the hallway into the courtroom. Rubin reiterates her plan to refer this case to the adoption and custody unit to investigate Wright’s residence and “other factors.” She awards Wright supervised visitation. Wright throws up his hands almost as a reflex. “Don’t want it. I don’t want it,” he says before leaving the courtroom again. I can’t believe he repeated.  The judge had spoken too soon. When Wright emerged from the hallway, his wrists were shackled behind his back. The judge ordered the two parties to sign forms, then asked the bailiff to find Smith an escort to her car. It made sense. Wright’s actions felt unpredictable. He didn’t look like a changed man anymore. The bailiff brought him to central booking. Wright stood handcuffed in the doorway as I edged my way past him out of the courtroom doors.
The world of family law made structural issues feel more intimate, more personal, and more real. It didn’t matter that this venue wasn’t emblazoned with marble or that its characters were wearing sweatshirts and jeans, instead of suits, because something mattered beyond a superficial, surface level. Family, justice, children, health, education, and the law – it all mattered. And these weren’t just some characters buried within the four corners of a legal textbook. These were real families in need of real help. Their prism of flaws and complicated dynamics reflected my own family’s composition. The defendant’s husband turned to me in the gallery. “Are you a lawyer?” He whispered. For the first time, I didn’t have to suppress an “Oh, God, no” reaction. This world somehow seemed less pretentious, less remote, and less disconnected. I could see myself in this world.
 It’s undoubtedly a maneuver I developed as a 5-foot-2 reporter cognizant of how even the slightest outside presence can detract from a story.
 Excluding the three court officials
 Now, I don’t often believe in fate, but when I do it’s because a series of events had to take place to experience something rare. On Wednesday, I had woken up late, hopped on a bus, walked to the district courthouse, went through a metal detector, searched for the docket, talked to a security guard, rode the elevator, and then backtracked to circuit court. I phoned the clerk, walked through another metal detector, talked to another security guard, and then checked-in with an official at the desk. He listed three courtrooms headlining family court proceedings for the day. And I made a completely arbitrary decision to enter courtroom three. All of these events led me to observe my first-ever family court proceeding: a divorce case where the parties’ only child has the same name of the person I’m constantly reminded of when reflecting on the impact of divorce on children.
 Legal custody refers to long-range decisions (e.g. education, medical care, religion, and discipline), whereas physical custody concerns the rights and duties to provide a home and make day-to-day decisions when the child is in your care.
 The clerk is filing her nails into a microphone. I find it profoundly absurd watching a person ask a judge for the ability to reconnect with his son while the person seated directly in front of him is engrossed in a mundane beauty regimen. “Can you stop that?” The judge teetered the line between question and declaration. Finally, the woman stopped.
 My response was probably premature. Maryland courts have deemed the capacity of parents to communicate and reach shared decisions affecting their child’s welfare the “most important” factor in determining joint custody, but it is one of many factors to be viewed in the framework of the child’s best interest. Other factors include: a willingness to share custody, parents’ fitness, relationship established between the child and each parent, “suitably-aged” child’s preference, potential disruption of child’s social and school life, geographic proximity of parental homes, demands of parental employment, age and number of children, sincerity of parents’ request, parents’ financial status, impact on state or federal assistance, and benefit to parents, according to the Maryland Court of Appeals’ 1986 decision in Taylor v. Taylor.
 It turns out the only true support for this impression is a longstanding propensity for comeback stories that can reach beyond sucker to delusional.
 Wright later clarifies that Smith won’t let him “take” A anywhere – a request he has honored to “keep the peace.”
 An investigation had been conducted after Wright accused Smith’s husband of abusing A.
 My inner voice goes De Niro circa 1976. “You talkin’ to me?” She is either looking at me or the defendant’s husband. Even though it’s not my phone, I start to think it might be my phone. My palms are sweating. It becomes quite clear to me why witnesses stumble under the watchful eyes of a judge.
 “Ties of blood weaken, and ties of companionship strengthen, by lapse of time. Consequently, the longer period of time required for a parent to prove reformation, the less chance he has to reclaim a lost child,” according to a citation by Maryland’s intermediate court in the 1967 Sanders case.
 To me, choking a child’s mother would qualify as a sufficient harm basis to deny visitation in the best interests of the child, even in the face of a father’s 14th Amendment liberty interest to care, custody and control of his child. Then again, maybe the nexus to an impact on the child is simply insufficient on these facts to demonstrate the causal effect of domestic abuse. No outside parties testified, but Smith likely could have improved her case with the testimony of A’s child psychologist to further distinguish such a nexus.
 Moreover, for a parent who hasn’t really had access to his son in the past seven years, I find his reaction incongruent with his entire testimony. I’m not a parent, but rejecting visits with your son because you don’t get “equal custody” feels like a parent prioritizing his childish agenda above the best interests of his child.