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Family Court Judge Refuses Divorce

Clarkston Legal Sept. 4, 2015

Sometimes, a judge is just looking for some cheap professional attention. That’s what we suspect occurred this week when a Tennessee family court judge cited the SCOTUS marriage equality decision, among other reasons, as the stated basis for denying an elderly couple’s divorce.

After hearing from 7 witnesses and considering dozens of exhibits over 4-days, Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton refused to grant the divorce sought by the litigants. And now, perhaps by the Chancellor’s design, here comes his 15-minutes of ill-conceived fame.

In denying the requested relief upon completion of the proofs, the Chancellor stated that because of the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court now needed to clarify, “when a marriage is no longer a marriage.” The judge’s reasoning is flawed to the extent that whatever our High Court has defined as a fundamental right within the context of marriage has nothing relevant to do with a state law divorce proceeding.

Chancellor Atherton further concluded that because the SCOTUS has deemed Tennesseans incompetent to define the central institution of marriage, he is somehow judicially hamstrung on the performance of his sworn duties. Those duties would include presiding over and resolving a contested divorce proceeding through a judgment.

What the…? Is this guy trying to match wits with Kim Davis over in Kentucky?

Divorce proceedings rarely go to trial. When they do, one of the findings a family court judge is required to make is whether the objects of matrimony have been destroyed such that there is no reasonable likelihood the marriage can be repaired; the ole “irreconcilable differences”. Usually, the simple fact that a complaint for divorce was filed is sufficient.

To properly conduct a divorce trial, the family court judge makes factual findings in the case -usually about the parties’ property in a case like this, without children. Also, the judge makes legal decisions based on the fact findings, like whether alimony is appropriate. Then, the judge must issue a judgment of divorce setting forth the findings of fact and conclusions of law.

In this case, after 4-days of testimony, Chancellor Atherton concluded the marriage could be salvaged and hoped the couple reconciled. It appears to us, however, that this couple has become victim to the judge’s personal desire to grab headlines by stating his political differences with the Obergefell marriage equality decision.

Divorce is difficult enough for couples without this form of petulant judicial grandstanding. We will continue to monitor this case in order to see what “work around” is utilized to correct this judge’s harmful error.

In blogging about the marriage equality civil rights movement over the past decade, we predicted that, if the SCOTUS established a fundamental right to marriage, as it did in Obergefell, there would be plenty of fallout; instances where people in positions of power, like this county judge in Tennessee and like the court clerk in Kentucky, simply refuse to obey the law of the land.