The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee on a 5-4 vote Wednesday approved a measure that would give courts the authority, in the words of the legislation, to “award attorney fees and costs to the prevailing party on a motion to set aside or modify the decision of a parenting coordinator” in child custody cases, which are often a contentious point in divorce actions.
“This bill (House Bill 446) is supported by the Idaho Supreme Court,” testified Judge Michael Dennard. He explained that the bill would allow the court to overrule decisions made by so-called “parenting coordinators,” professional mediators who intervene in child custody dispute matters within the state’s judicial system. The purpose of the bill is to discourage people from challenging the decisions made by parenting coordinators.
Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said that while he saw value in dispute resolution efforts, he had concerns about strengthening the power and authority of parenting coordinators. "We're talking here about singularly appointed individuals awarding damages and this is a matter of having big decisions made by a layperson, someone without any legal or judicial training, someone without familiarity with the canons of legal ethics.”
“We recognize the need for oversight here, and the decisions can be appealed,” Dennard replied.
Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, asked Dennard “if this bill goes into law, do you think the effect of it will be to make a reasonable improvement of case management in these difficult domestic dispute issues?”
Dennard said that he believes the measure would positively impact case management concerns in the state’s courts, and noted that “parenting coordinators themselves are asking for this.”
Dennard said that some attorneys and their clients “abuse” the system by repeatedly appealing the decisions of parenting coordinators.
“My only worries about this is that we don't identify the target and look at people who are abusing the system,” commented Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise. “Perhaps we can arrange for a report back on this. I will support this because I don’t want to deny people access to appealing a decision, but in the future I think we need to take another look at this if it becomes law and consider how it is working.”
At that point Davis, an attorney, spoke again. “I’ve worked closely with our judges,” he noted. “Those men and women who wear the black robes are far more capable of getting it right on a case by case basis, far more than nine very capable senators are. I trust the men and women in the courts who are doing this every day. Remember there is nothing mandatory here, this gives judges the option.”
Lakey responded, “I am not there yet. I cannot support this. We’re talking here about laypeople with no judicial training, no training in legal ethics. I just can’t support this.”
On a roll call vote, Lakey, along with Sens. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, voted against the measure. Davis and Werk, along with Sens. Les Bock, D-Boise, Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, and Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, approved the measure.