A new documentary film that paints the U.S. family court system as a cesspool of vindictive judges and conflicts of interest is generating buzz among residents in the Delaware Valley.
In "Divorce Corp.," an array of talking heads, from unhappy divorcees to professors to reporters, pans the $50 billion-a-year divorce industry. They say greedy lawyers have an incentive to drag out divorce proceedings for as long as possible in order to rack up more fees. Judges are portrayed as having cozy relationships with attorneys, and relying on barely trained experts to decide if parents can keep their children.
Thomas Leustek, a plant biology professor at Rutgers University, has long awaited the film's release.
Leustek is the founder of the advocacy group New Jersey Alimony Reform, which is pushing Garden State legislators to change the laws that determine payments to ex-spouses. He said they don't cut any slack for people who lose their jobs or retire.
To spread the word, group members are dressing in matching red T-shirts and handing out fliers outside of showings of "Divorce Corp."
"The average person has no idea what goes on in family court," said Leustek. "What we're there to do is to say, 'New Jersey is horrific. What's happening in New Jersey is a real tragedy.'"
Elaine Mickman, a stay-at-home mom in Lower Merion, is on the other side of the alimony debate. As a woman in her 50s with arthritis and other health problems, she thinks she deserves much more than what she got from her ex-husband in an 11-year-long divorce proceeding. She said journalists, government watchdogs and the film industry usually never care about such stories, though.
"People do not want to get involved when they hear family matters," said Mickman. "They think it's a private matter and they will dismiss you."
She's thrilled that "Divorce Corp." is the lone exception, and expects to watch it soon.
Not surprisingly, attorneys aren't quite as enthused about the documentary.
An attorney's perspective
"They had an agenda that they wanted to follow," said Brian Schwartz, a family lawyer in New Jersey. "They got the quotes and the stories to help with their agenda."
Schwartz said there are bad eggs in every industry, but most of his peers have high ethical standards. And, he said, divorcees are sometimes to blame for excessive litigation.
"You can't control an angry client who all they want, for example, is revenge," he said. "Those people run up fees, and those people are the ones who help create this image that the system is corrupt."
Joseph Sorge, the film's director, said lawyers and judges are clearly not all bad. He defends his documentary, which features interviews with family attorneys and judges, as balanced.
But in his mind, breaking up is way too hard to do in the United States. His solution: Copy the Scandinavian countries, where divorce is generally handled outside of the courts.
"By avoiding that adversarial process, they avoid a great deal of the acrimony and tension," he said. "The children do much better because their parents are not fighting. They're not trying to prove that the other parent is a bad parent."
Schwartz, the family attorney, said the U.S. would have to create a socialist welfare system for that to work.
The director admits it may not be a perfect solution. He's glad the film has people talking, though.