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When Custody Is At Stake, Twelve Heads Are Better Than One

Tonight's post on judges, juries and custody of children is written by our Marietta custody, Darrin Keaton. 

It seems only right at the start of the New Year to announce a personal resolution that relates to what we do here at The Manely Firm, PC. We are a Family Law firm and we take that very seriously.

In many of our cases, custody of children and parenting time schedules are the primary (and sometimes sole) issues. The house is gone, the stuff has been divided and the debts/assets are distributed. With no resolution on custody, a trial is inevitable.  The custody outcome depends on one person...the Judge. If there is one complaint from clients and attorneys alike that rises above all others, it is the inconsistency, and often times arbitrariness, of custody decisions among the hundreds of Georgia's Superior Court and Juvenile Court Judges.

The law doesn't guide judges much beyond the nebulous and vague "best interests of the child" standard. Sadly, there can be no definition of "best interest" and judges are left on their own in those decisions. Much like Justice Potter Stewart's legendary quote in his 1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio concurring opinion regarding obscenity, Georgia Judges will have to 'know it when they see it" when it comes to the best interests of children.

But should we lay that on just one person, even if it is the Judge? I say no. If a custody trial becomes necessary, the people of Georgia should have access to a jury trial to allow a jury of their peers to come to a more reasoned and consensus opinion on children's best interests.

Few realize that people involved in a divorce can have a jury of twelve people decide who gets the microwave and the lawn furniture all the way up to millions of dollars in assets, but a jury is not allowed to determine what is best for the children. Judges, other than being attorneys, have no special qualifications as therapists, psychologists or family experts. If twelve people (who also have no special family expert qualifications, like the judge) can be trusted with everything else, why not the children.

I am of the firm (and controversial) opinion that twelve heads are better than one when deciding what is best for kids if the parties cannot decide for themselves.

I believe a jury will be reasonable and just, with proper instruction from the Court, and can certainly do no worse than individual judges.  Perhaps in some honest moments, many judges would welcome the assistance of twelve jurors in deciding the custodial fate of children.

A jury has the power to render fair and impartial verdicts that can take a person's property, their liberty and even their life with the death penalty. Why is it such a stretch to think these very same juries could render fair and impartial verdicts on child custody matters?

For 2014, I resolve to promote and pursue that very idea because sometimes twelve heads ARE better than one.

W. Darrin Keaton

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