The Women of CourtWatch

[ Regional/Texas ]

The Women of CourtWatch

Reforming a Corrupt Family Court System

By Carole Bell Ford

The inspiring and courageous story of women activists whose grassroots campaign defeated powerful judges and brought justice to a family court system.

2005

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 254 pp. | 8 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-70958-4

Houston was a terrible place to divorce or seek child custody in the 1980s and early 1990s. Family court judges routinely rendered verdicts that damaged the interests of women and children. In some especially shocking cases, they even granted custody to fathers who had been accused of molesting their own children. Yet despite persistent allegations of cronyism, incompetence, sexism, racism, bribery, and fraud, the judges wielded such political power and influence that removing them seemed all but impossible. The family court system was clearly broken, but there appeared to be no way to fix it.

This book recounts the inspiring and courageous story of women activists who came together to oppose Houston's family court judges and whose political action committee, CourtWatch, played a crucial role in defeating five of the judges in the 1994 judicial election. Carole Bell Ford draws on extensive interviews with Florence Kusnetz, the attorney who led the reform effort, and other CourtWatch veterans, as well as news accounts, to provide a full history of the formation, struggles, and successes of a women's grassroots organization that overcame powerful political interests to improve Houston's family courts. More than just a local story, however, this history of CourtWatch provides a model that can be used by activists in other communities in which legal and social institutions have gone astray. It also honors the heroism of Florence Kusnetz, whose commitment to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam ("repairing and improving the world") brought her out of a comfortable retirement to fight for justice for women and children.

  • Introduction
  • Part I
    1. Before CourtWatch: A Broken System
    2. Florence: A Woman in Two Worlds
    3. Gender Bias and the Law: The Blind Maiden
    4. Ethical Dilemmas: Practicing Family Law
  • Part II
    1. Florence, Melanie, and Diana: "Housewives Dabbling in Politics"
    2. The Election of 1994: "The Babes That Slew the Goliath"
    3. Houston: After CourtWatch
  • Epilogue: Loose (Odds and) Ends
  • Appendix A. Notes on Gender Socialization
  • Appendix B. Justice for Children and Child Protective Services
  • Appendix C. Domestic Violence and Mediation
  • Appendix D. CourtWatch Protocol and Board Members
  • Appendix E. Attorneys for Negotiated Resolution and Collaborative Family Law
  • Appendix F. Case Histories
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index
  • Acknowledgments

"After you talk to my wife, you just might want to write a book about her."

Howard Kusnetz

One day in the spring of 1993, the phone rang at the home of Florence Kusnetz, a recently retired family law attorney in Houston, Texas. Florence was surprised to hear that the caller was FBI Special Agent Kathy Loedler; after a brief conversation, the two women agreed to meet for lunch the next day. The consequence of that meeting was CourtWatch, a political action committee of about two hundred volunteers, all but one of whom were women.

The women of CourtWatch did what they were told couldn't be done. They drove a group of powerful and entrenched family court judges off the bench—someone called CourtWatch "the babes who slew the Goliath" (Rodriguez). It was quite a victory. In the election of November 1994, newcomers to the Houston family courts replaced all but two incumbents. Now that more than a decade has passed, it's possible to look back upon the spectrum of events which began with a phone call, led to the formation of CourtWatch, and ultimately resulted in the major reform of a large, urban, and very seriously troubled family court system.

Over that 1993 lunch at an Italian restaurant, Agent Loedler disclosed some confidential information to Florence Kusnetz. During the previous three years, the Bureau had been investigating allegations of corruption involving some judges on the family court bench of Harris County, in which Houston is located. Florence wasn't surprised; the FBI investigation of the bench was only one of several taking place at the time. One statewide task force was looking into questions of judicial appointments, while another was examining allegations of judicial misconduct; a gender bias task force was about to publish its findings; and the results of an informal investigative report in the form of a television documentary called America Undercover: Women on Trial had recently been broadcast. The film, produced by the actor and director Lee Grant, focused on several shocking custody cases in which there were allegations of child abuse and in which the alleged abusers had been granted custody of the children. Houston was accustomed to being in the spotlight, but it was shaken by this notoriety.

Agent Loedler had sought Florence out because she'd learned that Florence had been at odds with the family court system for many years. Florence Kusnetz had spent much of her career in family law finding alternatives to what she described as the "bloody domestic battles" acted out in the courts—battles in which children not only were innocent victims but were also used as weapons. Loedler hoped Florence would be able to help the investigation, but Florence had no information "that had solid evidence behind it." However, she told Loedler what was being said: "The talk is that judges play poker with the big money lawyers and that paper bags of cash change hands at these games. Also, I heard that some lawyers gave judges their credit cards to use on trips to Las Vegas. Some claimed that these lawyers had an open line to the judges and often got favorable rulings that were unwarranted by the evidence."

And, according to Florence, there was a lot of socializing between judges and certain attorneys who ended up appointed in special capacities on many cases. The lawyers then took in large fees, which were paid, in addition to their legal fees, by the divorcing parties.

For reasons that remain uncertain—perhaps political pressure, perhaps lack of evidence, perhaps something more insidious—the FBI investigation was subsequently abandoned. But Loedler had urged Florence to contact Melanie Harrell. In a public forum, Melanie had recently confronted some of the family court judges for alleged cronyism. "You are of like mind," Loedler said. Florence remembers:

I called Melanie and we met. We spent two hours finding out that we both felt something needed to be done about reforming the family courts. I told her I had had this idea for several years, of forming a committee to educate the public about the abuses of the courts and the need to shed some light on what was going on. After all, the family courts were the ones most people were likely to have contact with, and they didn't know anything about what was going on there.

I remember telling Melanie that I had a great deal of mental energy but little physical energy and would welcome help from some young people to explore what we could do. She suggested we have a first meeting at her friend Diana Compton's house where the three of us, and those we invite, could talk about the best way of bringing about change.

The three women—Florence, Melanie, and Diana—later thoughtlessly dismissed by a critic as "housewives dabbling in politics," would, on the contrary, prove to be formidable advocates for reform.

CourtWatch was conceived at the meeting in Diana's home, and in Florence the group had found its leader. In the Houston legal community she was known as an innovative family law attorney and a feisty and forceful opponent. The fact that she had retired from her twenty-year practice was thought to be an advantage, since Florence seemed immune to reprisals from the bench. As it turned out, she was not, but that is part of the story to come.

The story of CourtWatch is the record of a successful grassroots reform movement that offers a model for communities struggling against judicial systems originally meant for their protection that have since gone astray. Unfortunately, according to recent studies by the highly respected American Law Institute, American Bar Association, and other groups, there are many such communities throughout the country.

But the history of CourtWatch is more than a case study. Entwined with the tale of CourtWatch is another success story, the story of a woman, a homemaker for almost twenty years, who became an attorney when she was forty years old. Photos of Florence Kusnetz taken during her early years as a lawyer show a small trim woman with short dark hair and big dark eyes; she doesn't turn away from the camera. That was in the early 1970s, a time when few women were admitted to law schools and even fewer mature women were entering the profession.

During the succeeding twenty years, Florence had a significant impact upon the practice of family law in Houston. She provided the first alternative to the divorce courts by introducing mediation as a method for resolving family disputes. She helped found an organization of family mediators who advocated and promoted the process. And she established an association of attorneys who were committed to practicing family law in a collaborative, rather than adversarial, manner.

Houston was an unlikely place for Florence to have settled so comfortably and successfully. It was, in every respect, light years removed from Brownsville, where she was born and raised—not Brownsville, Texas, but a Jewish, immigrant, working-class neighborhood of the same name in Brooklyn, New York. Yet, because Florence would bring the values and attitudes she acquired in the Brooklyn community to her work as a Houston family law attorney, the two communities would become oddly joined.

Florence's decision to direct the CourtWatch reform effort was an expression of her social consciousness. And it was consistent with the deeply held Jewish values she internalized as she grew up within the shared culture of Brownsville. Among these is her commitment to the concept of tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase which translates roughly as the "repair and improvement of the world"—literally, to fix the universe. Tikkun olam is not an option for Jews but rather one of the most profound and lifelong obligations of the Jewish faith. It accounts, in good measure, for the disproportionately large number of Jews of Florence's generation who were involved in radical and liberal social movements, as well as in the helping professions.

Still, Florence admits that she did try to resist being recruited into the fledgling reform movement and what was to become CourtWatch. She was genuinely torn; the timing was very bad. Her husband, Howard, had recently retired from a successful career of his own with Shell Oil, as an expert in occupational health and safety. Florence and Howard agreed that the last thing she needed at that point in her life was another demanding project; she was just beginning to enjoy her retirement.

Fortunately for Houston, Florence sensed her own importance to the reform effort. Her decision was not quite so fortunate for Howard, who knew that for the duration he'd enjoy less of his wife's company. Yet he also knew that Florence was not able to refuse; she had been fighting the family courts for too many years to turn away. She may have retired from her professional practice, but she wasn't absolved from her social responsibility, from tikkun olam. And, by accepting the commitment to CourtWatch, Florence was acknowledging yet another obligation, an admonition to all Jews that can be found in a collection of Biblical commentary known as the Mishnah: "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, yet neither are you free to give up."

I first learned about Florence Kusnetz and CourtWatch while researching a book, The Girls, about women who grew up in Brownsville. Florence responded to an ad I'd placed in the alumni newspaper of the high school she'd attended, but she was out when I called back. Howard answered the phone. When I told him why I was calling, he said, prophetically (actually, I suspect he fixed the idea in my mind): "After you talk to my wife, you just might want to write a book about her." He was right.

By the end of this first of many conversations with Florence—a phone call that lasted about three hours—not only was I impressed by the story of CourtWatch but by Florence herself. She was an ideal role model: a woman successful in both her domestic and professional lives. With determination—sometimes sheer stubbornness—she overcame a succession of formidable barriers. She grew up in a poor, immigrant family. She lived in a community, and at a time, where there were many cultural prohibitions and limited expectations for women. She confronted prejudice related to her age and gender when she returned to school as a mature student, and she chose to enter a profession that was not only male-dominated but was very hostile to women.

Florence and I spoke for the first time in 1996, only two years after CourtWatch's achievements. As soon as I was able, I set about trying to understand the events, as well as the philosophical, historical, and social context that formed the background for CourtWatch. I knew little, but I managed to learn the basics. I had a crash course in "Family Law 101," with Florence as my mentor. Under her guidance, I read countless pages of newspaper accounts, as well as books and other literature dealing with the nature of the law, family law, gender, and issues related to divorce and children in domestic crisis. I found that a fuller understanding of the history of women and the law helped me understand the circumstances surrounding the development of the reform movement; consequently, there are occasional digressions into some of these areas in this book. These will not provide new information for those already informed, but will enrich the story for the lay reader.

My first visit to Houston was not until December 1999. I went through the arrival gate at the Houston airport a bit anxiously, looking for a couple I knew only through photos. But I recognized Howard right away. He had assured me that I would; he said to look for someone wearing a souvenir hat from the Houston Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel.

Florence didn't quite look as I had expected from her photographs. Her hair was lighter and, since her retirement, her contours gentler. But I recognized her voice from our many telephone conversations. It has a slight hoarseness, which softens her speech. When she smiles, her eyes sparkle. All of this seduces you into thinking that she is just another mid-seventyish Jewish grandmother and belies her forthright, direct, no-nonsense attitude. Lurking behind the sweetness and roundness is a formidable intellect, firm opinions, and impatience with illogical thinking. And she loathes injustice.

As the story unfolds you will meet other women (and a few supportive men) who initiated reform by exposing the complex problems endemic in the Harris County Family Courts and all too similar to problems elsewhere. Women such as Melanie Harrell and Diana Compton. Women with the unlikely names of Donna Ringoringo and Phrogge (pronounced "Froggy") Simons. Family court judges Bonnie Hellums, Mary Sean O'Reilly, and Linda Motheral. Men such as Randy Burton, founder of Justice for Children. And others like Mary Frances Parker and Sandi Hebert, who are survivors of the system.

The momentum of their protests against alleged abuses in the courts drove the reform movement forward, led to the organization of CourtWatch, and ultimately to resulted in its success.

Carole Bell Ford is Professor Emerita of Education and Women's Studies at SUNY, Empire State College. She lives in New Paltz, New York.

"The women of CourtWatch did what they were told couldn't be done. They drove a group of powerful and entrenched family court judges off the bench—someone called them 'the babes who slew the Goliath.' It was quite a victory."

—Carole Bell Ford, from the Introduction