April 8, 2016
By Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Contrary to its representations to its membership and the press, the Family Law Section (FLS) of the Florida Bar has been aware of and deeply involved in the progress of SB 668 (alimony and parenting time reform) since at least January of this year. One hundred pages of emails among the Legislation Committee and the Executive Committee of the FLS received for the first time by the National Parents Organization reveal almost constant lobbying efforts against reform and weekly updates from paid FLS lobbyists.
As I reported here, the FLS told the Daily Business Review, that language on parenting time had been slipped into the bill at the last moment. In fact, as early as January 28th, FLS member Tom Sasser reported to the Legislation Committee that there were four alimony reform bills before the legislature and that each one included a provision for 50/50 parenting time.
And yet, as late as April 2nd, the FLS was telling the Daily Business Review this:
The Florida Bar’s family law section made an unprecedented decision to hire emergency lobbyists after its top-priority bill to overhaul the alimony system picked up a major unrelated amendment that was intolerable.
The section hired two high-profile lobbyists for $105,000 on the last day of the legislative session to press the governor to veto the bill the section helped draft.
Not only was the FLS fully aware of the terms of all legislation affecting alimony and parenting time, throughout the legislative session, the claim that it hired additional lobbyists on the last day of the session is far from the truth. In fact, among the documents received by NPO are the contracts for the two lobbying firms signed by the FLS. That happened on March 4th, one week prior to the end of the session.
Indeed, those same documents include the minutes of meetings of the Legislation Committee that took place on January 28th, February 5th, 8th, 12th, 19th, 26th, March 4th and 11th. At each of those the committee took information and discussed the progress of alimony and parenting time reform. Much of the information was provided by one of its two regular paid lobbyists, Nelson Diaz.
In short, the suggestion, made to the Daily Business Review, that the Family Law Section had been blindsided by a last-minute secret change to SB 668 is untrue.
FLS No Better to its Members than to the Press
Perhaps more amazingly, the Legislation Committee, not content with misrepresenting SB 668 to the press and the public, did the same to its own members. The emails obtained by the National Parents Organization reveal a losing battle on the part of the FLS and its rising concern with each new turn of events against its position. That finally resulted in the decision to, having failed in the state House and Senate, lobby Governor Rick Scott to veto the bill.
Accordingly, a “blast” email was sent out to all FLS members telling them that the “game plan” was to “flood the governor with emails and phone calls” encouraging him to veto SB 668. The email blast that was explicitly approved by the General Counsel to the Florida Bar, frankly misrepresented the terms of SB 668.
For example, the email blast stated that, if SB 668 becomes law, it will require family court judges to make written findings of fact “in every case absent the agreement of the parents.” That is not true. In fact, the language in the bill makes it clear that, in all cases in which the parents agree and in 50/50 parenting time cases, the court need make no findings of fact. And, since the overwhelming majority of custody cases are agreed to by the parents, the onus placed on judges of making findings of fact will be slight.
Then there’s the email blast’s claim that SB 668 is a “50/50 timesharing bill.” As even the FLS lawyers can figure out, the 50/50 provision is only a “premise” from which judges must start in deciding parenting time. There are then 20 different criteria that already exist in Florida law that the judge must consider before issuing a parenting time order.
So the FLS is asking its members to bombard Governor Scott with, to say the least, inaccurate information.
Florida Family Law Section Ignores Children to Oppose SB 668
And what of children? In all 100 pages of emails, minutes of meetings, contracts, etc., no member of the FLS says a single word about children or their welfare. That’s right, not one. That of course directly contradicts the position of at least some of their members. As Rachel Alexander reported in her Town Hall article, Florida family attorney Lori Barkus avidly supports SB 668 because of its potential to promote children’s welfare by enhancing their post-divorce relationships with their dads.
The Legislation Committee of the FLS considered several justifications for their opposition to shared parenting, and eventually settled on the idea that shared parenting would reduce child support and therefore damage the financial status of “moderate income families.” Needless to say, they offered no support for such a claim. In fact, the opposite would likely be true. By freeing custodial parents from the usual 80 – 100% of parenting time, they’d be able to work more, earn more and save more than they now do. Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average child support received by custodial mothers is under $3,900 per year. Custodial dads do even worse, receiving just over $3,000 per year. Needless to say, just about anyone, with substantially more time in which to work, could earn more than that.
The FLS Misrepresents Alimony Reform Too
And let’s not forget alimony reform. SB 668 reforms alimony in Florida as well, and the FLS opposed it. Perhaps its major objection is to the 10% rule for a modification of alimony. The bill states that a payer cannot seek a downward modification of payments unless the recipient has received at least a 10% increase in her/his earnings. In more than one article, opponents of SB 668 have raised the specter of a woman earning $10 per hour being faced with a Motion to Modify if she receives just a $1 per hour raise.
But what the FLS never mentions is that, as things stand now, anyone can seek such a modification regardless of the circumstances. SB 668 would in fact make it harder for payers to modify orders, not easier.
But most remarkably, that 10% language appears to be the Family Law Section’s own! At the meeting of the FLS Legislation Committee on January 28th, a question arose about the 10% language in SB 668. Tom Sasser answered it by saying that the legislature had asked FLS about what constitutes a “substantial” change of circumstances” that would allow a modification of alimony. The minutes of the meeting then state “so the bill defines a 10% change as a substantial change.” In short, the legislature asked the FLS for information, the FLS provided it and SB 668 includes exactly that information. The FLS then opposes the bill based on the information it provided.
It takes real desperation for the FLS to object to a term in a bill that it specifically advised the legislature on. But the FLS is desperate, as 100 pages of documents obtained by the National Parents Organization make abundantly clear.