by Carole Bell Ford
Reviewed by Rosalie R. Young, Public Justice Department, State University of New York at Oswego.
Email: ryoung [at] Oswego.edu.
Carole Bell Ford, Professor Emerita of Education and Women’s Studies at SUNY Empire State College, has used interviews and news reports to write an intriguing volume depicting the grass roots battle of a small group of women in Harris County, Texas (Houston) to reform a dysfunctional family court system. Between the spring of 1993 and the elections in November of 1994, their CourtWatch protests, educational efforts, and political activity resulted in the election of new judges, many of whom demonstrated a real interest in both family court and the litigants’ needs.
This very readable book offers undergraduate students, law students, established lawyers and the general public the opportunity to examine the struggles of clients who used the Harris County Family Court, the lawyers who represented them, the judges who sat on the bench and the hazards caused by a political system which selects the judicial candidates. Along the way, Ford describes the gender biases in Harris County Family Court and the prejudices that have plagued female lawyers.
For at least a decade prior to CourtWatch, there were complaints that a “good old boys” network of lawyers and judges resulted in favorable decisions for clients whose lawyers were members of the network. Lawyers with pending cases were asked to make contributions to judicial election campaigns, and claims of racism, sexism, corruption, fraud, and incompetence were voiced. Mothers claimed that custody of their children was awarded to fathers charged with abuse. Divorce decisions in Harris County favored the wealthy and powerful, and those whose lawyers were friends of the judges.
Further, the Harris County Family Court resisted innovations. Even though the Texas legislature passed a law recommending mediation in cases involving children and parents, several judges refused to make referrals to mediation. In addition, the court ignored a 1989 law requiring that judges get training in family violence.
In her description of the CourtWatch effort, Ford offers the reader an understanding of the social and economic backgrounds of the primary participants. She focuses on the movement of Florence Kusnetz, a former family court lawyer, from her Brownsville, New York Jewish roots, through her many moves in response to her husband’s career and her entrance into college and law school as a mature woman. Kusnetz’s efforts were often denigrated due to her age and gender. Ford describes in some detail the gender and ethical conflicts Kusnetz encountered in law school and in her [*529] practice, which were reflected in the attitudes and actions of the Harris County Family Court judges. To a lesser extent, Ford describes other participants and their goals and experiences prior to, during, and following the CourtWatch era.
Ford includes descriptions of mediation and collaborative law, representing efforts to promote settlement of family court issues, rather than leaving the responsibility to the courts and judicial decision makers. She describes the broad discretion of judges, which in the wrong hands, as in Harris County, can result in biased and even dangerous child custody decisions.
The CourtWatch committee became a political action committee (PAC), whose goal became removing five of the nine Family Court judges through the electoral process. They enlisted an inactive advisory board of prominent people who were willing to lend their names to the CourtWatch effort, a brave action in Harris County. Two hundred fund raisers then set about earning the dollars needed, recognizing that although the money provided necessary assets, the donors were also indicating support for CourtWatch activities.
Ford describes CourtWatch’s victories and setbacks, beginning with the decision by four of the five targeted judges not to run for reelection. Eventually there were eight open seats, and seven of eight CourtWatch candidates won in the primaries. While all their nominees did not win judicial seats, seven new judges were elected.
The latter third of the book describes Harris County Family Court after the CourtWatch effort. Politics and partisan elections remain. Though most feel the family court situation is much improved, there were no minorities or Democrats on the bench as the book concluded. Kusnetz feels that family court remains a negative experience for divorcing families, although as Ford describes, reforms and alternatives are currently being promoted.
In six appendices, Ford offers additional information on gender issues, children’s advocacy groups, mediation, CourtWatch and case histories, demonstrating the problems inherent in family dissolution.
This engaging volume offers a variety of benefits to the potential reader. It reinforces an understanding of the way many of our courts function and the biases inherent in our system. Equally as important, this readable volume demonstrates both the victories and frustrations of a grassroots effort, an endeavor that achieved reform because of a determined group of women and their supporters.
THE WOMEN OF COURTWATCH can serve as a welcome addition to undergraduate family law classes and should be considered by those teaching both social movements and judicial process. Ford’s volume can be profitably added to a law school course on family law to demonstrate the impact of family courts on communities.