Mark Sanford’s Continuing Soap Opera, and How Mediation Can Help:
Mark Sanford has deluged all of us with the details of his personal life, and with his perception of those details. Most recently, Mr. Sanford took to Facebook and the newspapers to “update his constituents” on his personal life, and to announce he would finally retain the services a Charleston lawyer to fight back against his ex-wife (this firm’s thoughts on going through a divorce without representation). Whether or not you follow this saga on a regular basis, there are some important procedures being brought to bear on the problems which he outlines to all of us, and some of those procedures could help you:
1) According to Mr. Sanford, his former wife previously brought a Rule to Show Cause against him in the Family Court.
What is a Rule to Show Cause?
In the Family Courts of this state, and I will assume the same applies to other states as well, you are expected to obey any Order that the court issues in your case. This applies to both Husband and Wife – if the Order tells you to do, or not to do, any particular thing, you are expected to behave accordingly. If you do not, and you either do things you are not supposed to do OR fail to do things you are supposed to do, the other party has the right to bring those problems to the Court’s attention. The manner in which this is done is by filing a petition with the Court asking for the issuance of a Rule to Show Cause. A Rule to Show Cause is an ORDER requiring a party to appear in Family Court at a designated time to “show cause” why the person alleged to be deficient in his or her responsibilities should NOT be held in contempt of Court.
It is my understanding, from reading Mr. Sanford’s various missives and from newspaper reports (I do not represent either of the Sanfords, and have never done so, so I do not claim to possess any information other than that I was able to freely obtain via Mr. Sanford’s own writings or via newspaper/internet publications) that he was brought into Court in the past after a Rule to Show Cause was issued which alleged that he had not paid his child support and/or that he paid it inconsistently. He was permitted to offer a defense, which is consistent with the Rules of Court. His defense was found inadequate, in that he stated he had other expenses to pay before he could pay child support – some sources refer to his having to make repairs at his plantation home property. The judge did not accept this prioritization on Mr. Sanford’s part, and he was found in contempt of court. The ruling, as I have read reports of it, determined that he had “willfully” violated the court’s Order, which is another way of saying that he DID fail to do those things that his former Wife alleged (in this case, pay his child support), AND that his failure was “without just excuse”.
What happens when you are found in contempt of Court in the Family Court? Since our Family Courts are civil courts (as opposed to criminal courts) most of the time they deal with civil contempt and their goal is not to incarcerate anyone, but to coerce them into doing what they are supposed to be doing already. With civil contempt, the person facing the court’s decision is typically “left with the keys to the jailhouse,” in that he or she will not go to jail if he or she follows the Court’s ruling – both the old part and the new part. Typically a judge will sentence the person found in willful contempt to a jail term (such as 30 days for a first offense) but will suspend that jail term upon the person performing certain terms. Perhaps the child support needs to be caught up immediately, and/or a fine may be assessed and/or some new restraining order provisions are required. Judges can be very creative in working through solutions to misbehavior and trying to make sure the particular issue does not come up again. In the Sanford case, I have no idea exactly what the judge imposed on Mr. Sanford by reason of his contempt of court; however, I would anticipate in any such case that there was some requirement for immediate payment of any child support due in addition to other terms. Very often, judges take care in Rule to Show Cause hearings to lecture the misbehaving person about their responsibilities.
Charleston lawyers will tell you a Rule to Show Cause is to be neither lightly undertaken nor ignored. Judges in our Family Courts have tremendous power, and can reach into almost every aspect of your life. Standing in front of the court after failing to pay your child support, particularly when you did have the money but chose to do something else with it, is a very foolish position for anyone. Many persons found in contempt of court end up being transported to the Charleston County Detention Center instead of going home, on their court hearing date, while they work frantically to resolve monetary and other requirements imposed on them by reason of their contempt.
2) According to published reports, the Sanfords will participate in mediation rather than a scheduled hearing (NOT a Rule hearing) which was set to address visitation issues.
What is mediation?
It is not feasible to cover everything about mediation in this post. However, it is important to know that mediation is an out-of-court attempt to discuss and resolve matters, any matters, with the assistance of a certified professional mediator. Most of the effective, local mediators in Family Court are also practicing Charleston lawyers. The mediator’s job is to assist the parties in narrowing their issues, discovering common ground, and making compromises which will resolve their disputes. The mediator selected should be certified in Family Court mediation, and should have a good bit of experience. I do not know who may have been selected to serve as mediator in the Sanford case, but with hard work, honesty and compromise they should be able to reach an agreement on all issues. That agreement will then be submitted to the Court for its approval, and its adoption as a Court Order. Therefore, the Court’s intervention would not be necessary, and the two people involved in the case will have produced a written agreement, the terms of which each is willing to abide by.
3) Lastly, one of the abiding benefits of mediation is demonstration to one’s children that his or her parents have the ability to talk, to reason, and to solve problems.
Particularly in the Sanford case, the importance of this aspect cannot be over-stated.