Law News

Sharply Divided Appeals Court Sends Kids Back to Busy Lawyer-Mom

by Jim Oliphant
Miami Daily Business Review
June 15, 1999

The divisiveness lingers in the child custody case between Miami lawyer Alice Hector and her ex-husband, Robert Young.

Wednesday, in an extraordinary 52-page decision, the appellate court that last year granted Young custody of their two daughters, revealed the judges too are strongly divided on the issue.

This time, a seven-member majority of the 11-judge 3rd District Court of Appeal sided with Hector and with finality. The couple's two preteen daughters will be going back to their mother.

Hector's case gained national attention a year ago when a three-judge panel of the 3rd District switched custody of the children to Young, saying that Hector had devoted too much time to her career and not enough to raising her daughters.

The panel second-guessed the decision of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge W. Thomas Spencer, who ruled in 1996 that the girls belong with Hector, a former partner at Steel Hector & Davis. Last year, she started her own firm.

The appellate opinion ignited a debate about the ability of ambitious women to remain effective mothers and examined lasting stereotypes about men who become a stay-at-home parent. The former couple ended up in such media outlets as diverse as NBC, the Times of London and the New Republic.

Wednesday's decision awarding custody to Hector is "going to set a lot of people's minds at ease that a working mother as long as she's a good mother doesn't have to worry about losing her kids," said Hector's lawyer, Burton Young.

He is not related to Robert Young, whose lawyers say they will seek review of the decision by the Florida Supreme Court.

In fiery dissenting opinions Wednesday, the three judges who last year decided that the children should be with Young criticized their fellow judges for falling victim to a bias in favor of the girls' mother. "The result," wrote Chief Judge Alan Schwartz in his dissent ". . . was dictated by the gender of the competing parties."

The majority opinion Wednesday backed up the 1996 family court's decision that Hector, despite her busy work schedule, was her daughters' primary parent.

Young, the court said, wasn't a Miami "Mr. Mom" as he had maintained. The court said Young, who was unemployed for years, should have tried harder to find a job to help the family.

Hector, in Colorado teaching at a seminar, said Wednesday she was "incredibly gratified" and "ecstatic."

Her ex-husband, however, was "heartbroken," said his attorney, Ellen Lyons. She said the 3rd District opinion ignored evidence concerning the amount of time Hector worked away from home, and did not give enough weight to testimony that Young was the girls' primary caregiver.

Instead of examining the time he spent with his daughters, the opinion seemed to question Young's motivations for wanting custody, Lyons said. In his dissent, Judge Schwartz complained that the majority had unfairly judged Young, and that the trial court had subjected him to scrutiny into his non-parental conduct that "few mortals could withstand."

During his marriage to Hector, Young left the family for several months to mount a treasure-hunting expedition in New Mexico. While there, he had an extramarital affair.

But Young's "character" was irrelevant compared with his proven ability as a parent, Schwartz argued. The children, the judge said, were improperly awarded to Hector because the court believed Young "was less sincere, less well motivated, less admirable and generally a worse person and a worse parent."

Schwartz also faulted the media for covering the case like "a sports event." The publicity surrounding the case was cited frequently by various judges in the opinion.

Maurice Jay Kutner, a Miami family lawyer, said that publicity was one reason why the 3rd District reheard the case and issued such a lengthy and meticulous opinion.

"The [court] decided this was an important issue," Kutner said. Young won a consolation of sorts Wednesday, however.

He could end up receiving more alimony payments from his former wife. The court ordered the payments recalculated.

Copyright 1999 NLP IP Company -- American Lawyer Media.