Lawyer who backed shared parenting initiative says new task force stacked against change
BISMARCK - A lawyer who backed a shared-parenting initiative last year is objecting to the State Bar Association's new Family Law Task Force, saying it's stacked with measure opponents.
BISMARCK – A lawyer who backed a shared-parenting initiative last year is objecting to the State Bar Association’s new Family Law Task Force, saying it’s stacked with measure opponents.
Bismarck attorney Arnold Fleck emailed a letter to task force co-chair Leah duCharme on Monday asking that it be disassembled. He wants the bar association’s board to recommend that the North Dakota Supreme Court appoint a statewide domestic relations committee instead.
Fleck noted that the task force includes several members of the bar association’s family law section, which opposed Measure 6 on the November 2014 ballot, while only one measure supporter serves on the panel.
“There is little possibility that the existing Task Force will approach its responsibilities in an unbiased way that is truly designed to improve North Dakota’s family law system in a manner that is in the best interests of our children,” he wrote.
Bar Association Executive Director Tony Weiler said the task force’s 12 core members were appointed by association president Joseph Wetch to address family law concerns that arose during the Measure 6 debate. Measure backer Sean Kasson, an attorney from Fargo, was appointed so that group would have a voice on the task force, Weiler said.
However, “The focus of it is not to start with that issue again, because it’s been defeated twice now by voters of this state,” he said.
Measure 6 aimed to create a presumption that each parent is a fit parent and entitled to equal parental rights and responsibilities by a court unless there’s clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
Voters rejected the measure 62 percent to 38 percent, after defeating a similar measure in 2006 by nearly a 13-point margin.
Kasson, a father of two who lost equal parenting time in his divorce, said co-chair Jason McLean indicated during the task force’s initial meeting last month in Fargo that the equal parenting presumption wouldn’t be considered because voters were clearly against it – which Kasson disputes, saying many felt the ballot measure simply wasn’t worded correctly.
“My understanding is that that’s not an area they even want to pursue,” he said.
DuCharme disputed that statement, saying the task force is in its infancy and has not decided which issues it will review to see whether state laws, rules and procedures need changes.
But she and McLean reiterated that the main focus won’t be on shared parenting.
“We’re not trying to fight old battles,” McLean said.
Kasson said he also raised concerns about the makeup of the panel, including that McLean – who, like duCharme, is a family law attorney at Gjesdahl Law in Fargo – was an outspoken opponent of Measure 6.
McLean was an active member of Keeping Kids First, a political committee that opposed Measure 6 and received more than $46,000 from the bar association to fight the measure.
That led to a lawsuit filed last February by the Goldwater Institute on behalf of Fleck claiming that the bar association violated his First Amendment rights by using his mandatory member dues to support a political view he opposed. Attorneys must belong to the bar to practice law in North Dakota.
Part of that lawsuit was settled when the bar association agreed to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on how dues may be spent. Weiler said members are being allowed to opt-out of paying for non-chargeable activities from 2014 on their 2016 dues, which amounts to about a $10 savings on the $380 in annual dues owed by members who have practiced for five years or more.
The bar association is still fighting other elements of the lawsuit, including one that would make membership voluntary.
Fleck, who did not return phone and email messages seeking comment Thursday, now contends that the task force’s expenses also are non-chargeable activities. He’s asked that the bar association advise its members of their rights to a refund.
But Weiler said member dues can be spent on improving the quality of legal services, and the task force’s work “clearly falls within the definition.” McLean said the task force’s purpose “is not political by any means.”
In response to other criticisms raised by Fleck, duCharme said the task force will seek outside viewpoints and will publicize its meetings and invite community feedback going forward.
“We are just so early on into it that we haven’t had an opportunity or reason to involve the community,” she said.
The committee’s next meeting is Dec. 17.