The Mayor begins every day the same way—he crows and flaps his wings and spreads his hackles and spins circles on his dry, yellow legs and flogs every other chicken in the barn. He is a beautiful rooster, half bantam and half fighting cock, with colors—blue, brown, green—that look deep and three-dimensional and appear never to hold constant for very long. He’s up at 6 in the morning, and I go out to feed him and the hens and the peepers a handful of mash and a slice of bread that I tear into small pieces.
I usually stop by to visit my mother in the afternoon, but I decide to drop by before work today. She has Alzheimer’s disease and takes medicine for it, but she seems to be fading recently. It’s a bully of a disease—strong and taunting, and my mom knows that little chunks of her mind are being picked out of her head. A second-grade teacher for 31 years, my mother can still balance a checkbook, play bridge, and knows people by name and face, but time and things and happenings wash right through her. Nothing sticks; nothing catches on in her mind. She’s happy to see me when I show up at the Landmark Center, and we share an apple someone gave her. She won’t remember any of it in an hour. The whole thing is grim and sad. I’m going to drive her to Baptist Hospital soon to look into the new medicine I’ve already been told is no better than the Aricept she’s currently getting.
Today I worked in Henry County, Va., handling custody and support appeals. For what it’s worth, my take on Elián González (I was a juvenile judge from 1992 to 1995 and still hear a number of domestic-relations cases that are appealed from district court): The case is a slam-dunk legally—an interested, involved natural parent vs. a great-uncle—and an easy question philosophically: Would you rather have a full and loving relationship with your blood father in less than desirable political circumstances or essentially lose your father and live in a country with a robust economy and constitutionally protected personal liberties … the finest country in the world, in fact? I’d choose family over the right to vote and tour Epcot Center. In fact, I’d elect to live with my mom or dad in Dante’s innermost circle.
The tough custody cases are those in which two good folks are each fighting to have a child live exclusively with one of them, and geography—one parent is moving to Wisconsin, the other remaining in Virginia—prevents any kind of joint arrangement or meaningful contact with both parents. With so much at stake, these are the trials that become venomous, and lawyers dwell on dirty hands and wrinkled shirts and ear infections, trying to turn microscopic occurrences and childhood happenstance into large-scale parental failings. These are the cases that lodge in your belly and you take home with you; there is no good outcome, no baby to split, and someone gets too little time with a son or daughter.
Today, thank goodness, everything is fairly straightforward. I have a whining, sullen, carping man who has appealed a decision of the lower court requiring him to pay the mother of his child a whopping $200 per month. She’s paying for day care and health insurance. I point out to him that the amount is less than $7 a day—maybe two meals at Mickey D’s minus dessert. He gives me my favorite response: His buddy doesn’t have to pay that much, and he’s got two other kids (both older, by two different women) to support. This gentleman has not made a payment to his child in nine months and is close to $2,000 in arrears. I send him to jail.
I end the day with a mother who won’t let her ex-husband visit with their child despite the terms of their court order. I gave them shared custody—alternating weeks—and she’s done everything in her power to sabotage the schedule in the order. He’s 10 minutes late to pick up the child; his car is unsafe; his new girlfriend is a harpy … and on and on it goes, until she finally realizes how contrived and petty the litany is and just stops talking and looks down at her hands, played out and embarrassed. I point out that the boy’s dad cared for him every night—without help—for seven years while these people were married and the mother worked second shift. She agrees to be more helpful; I give the father additional time in the summer and require her to pay his attorney’s fees.
The ride home is pleasant, an hour up Route 58 with the windows down. When I get to my house, the Mayor is perched on a porch railing, and he tilts his head and looks at me with one eye when I walk past.
All the information contained in these entries is available from court files and public records. Nothing confidential or privileged is revealed herein. Any case mentioned is a concluded case, no longer before Judge Clark. While those familiar with the facts of various cases will recognize the individuals involved, fictitious names will be used throughout this journal.