Hillary fights for fathers’ rights — or does she?


Here is a story just in time for Father’s Day that confirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

A recent Boston Globe article “Hillary Clinton Stands Up for Man in Child Custody Case”describes a 1978 custody case tried by Hillary Clinton in tiny Rison, Arkansas. It illustrates the political and monetary corruption of the family courts, corruption that persists to this day.

{mosads}Before Clinton was involved, a judge granted joint custody of the daughter to the parents. This decision was extraordinary, given the prevailing teachings of the day, which held that sole custody by the mother was in the best interest of children. Not a single state at the time even had a custody statute that made provisions for joint custody.

Was this a case of a prematurely enlightened family court judge doing the right thing?

There is a far more likely explanation. We learn that the father, Sanford Beshear, “was the only lawyer in the town and an important figure in southeastern Arkansas.” In fact, sufficiently important that he was the cochairman of Bill Clinton’s ultimately successful campaign for governor of Arkansas. We also learn in the article that there really was no fatal flaw in the mother.

Obviously, the judge, who would eventually have to stand for re-election, chose to go counter to the practices of the day to do a favor for a politically important father by giving him joint custody. Politics came first, just as considerations other than best interest of the child continue to come first today. For instance, we now know that shared parenting is in the best interest of most children, yet the money and power of the bar associations continue to stand in the way of this needed reform in state after state.

But in 1978, Beshear wanted more. Six months later, with 30-year-old Clinton now as his lawyer, he sought sole custody of his daughter. 

Why did Beshear dump his attorney who had gotten him joint custody and choose Clinton instead? She “had little expertise” in family law, as the Globe put it. Most likely is that Bill Clinton had just won the Democratic primary for governor and was certain to be elected governor in November. An elected judge would not want to antagonize both the powerful Beshear in his home county, and also the new governor.

Of course, political and financial motivations continue to drive events in family courts and legislatures today. For instance, in many states, shared parenting legislation is blocked by legislators who make most of their living practicing family law and fear the loss of fees that might occur if shared parenting eliminated most custody battles.

In a fascinating twist, Clinton wrote that discrimination against men in child custody was unconstitutional. This detail feeds the story line that Clinton, now known as an advocate for women, was standing up against discrimination against men too. And our view today, of course, is that she was absolutely right in theory – except that Beshear had already been treated fairly when he got joint custody six months earlier. But such constitutional arguments, while totally cogent and compelling, were not successful in Arkansas in 1978, and have not been successful in custody cases anywhere else in the United States to this day. Apparently the constitution does not apply in family courts.

Like any talented family law attorney Clinton knew that family courts traditionally seek proof that one parent is worse than the other, So her main tactic was to trash the other parent. She wrote that the mother “conducted herself…without regard to appropriate moral and ethical values and behavior.” Beshear tells us that “Bensberg [the mother] was in a relationship while the couple was separated.”  Trashing good-enough parents using the biases of the day is standard practice in the family courts, but could be minimized with a shared parenting tradition.

The reasons given by the judge for his sole custody decision in favor of Beshear are thin at best: Beshear “sacrificed the most” by shortening his working hours, while the child’s mother had decided to “continue her education even though married now to a man able to support her.” Just as often happens today, these are flimsy reasons for depriving a child of one of her loving parents, reasons that feed on the biases of the day. It leaves us with the impression that these were simply justifications for the underlying motive of placating the politically powerful  father and his lawyer (Clinton).

So we see all the family court tropes at work in 1978 Arkansas that we know so well from the family courts today. Unfortunately, it is so often about money, power, and the biases of the time, not the best interest of the child. This Father’s Day, let’s commit to fixing our broken family courts – we can’t afford to work against the best interests of children for yet another 38 years.

Ned Holstein, MD, MS, is founder and board chair of National Parents Organization.

Tags Bill Clinton Hillary Clinton

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