Divorced men claim discrimination by state courts

By Erica Noonan, Associated Press

September 7, 1999

BOSTON (AP) Six divorced men who claim they've been victimized by a court system that hands out restraining orders at the first allegation of domestic abuse filed suit against the state Tuesday saying the courts discriminate against men.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, claims that state district, probate and family court judges routinely subject men involved in marital and custody disputes to unconstitutional denials of due process and equal protection rights, as well as the right to bear arms.

''We aren't looking for money. We're looking for relief,'' said attorney David Grossack, who filed the suit on behalf of six men and the Fatherhood Coalition a Massachusetts-based fathers advocacy group that claims several hundred members.

Charlotte Whiting, a spokeswoman for the state courts, and Marcia Cohen, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, declined to comment on the case.

The lawsuit claims the state's restraining order laws systematically discriminate against men.

''I'm hoping it will level the playing field and force Massachusetts judges to treat both parents equally,'' said 51-year-old Earl Henry Sholley, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Grossack said he seeks to have the state's restraining order law overturned because it allows for an order to be issued based only on allegations, not proof of, domestic violence.

Of the 40,000 restraining orders issued in the state each year, more than 90 percent are requested by women against their male partners, Grossack said.

Subjects of the orders are typically ordered from their homes, often prohibited from contacting their children and denied a ''meaningful'' hearing to defend themselves, the suit alleges. Federal and state laws unfairly deprive them of their right to own weapons during that time, the suit alleges.

Plaintiffs also claim that Massachusetts judges routinely deny accused men visits with their children and order them to write support checks beyond their means. In addition, some men have been threatened with jail for sending greeting cards to their kids, the suit said.

Sholley, who lives in Medway and owns a landscaping company, said his case illustrates the injustice of the system.

Sholley doesn't deny slapping his 14-year-old daughter across the face as a disciplinary measure five years ago, but he says the fallout was unfair: a restraining order taken out by his daughter, a 6-month jail sentence for assault and battery, and divorce proceedings that gave his ex-wife their house and assets.

James Nollet, 49, of Woburn said he joined the legal action after his ex-wife accused him of abuse and took out several restraining orders against him in the mid-1990s.

Although he was acquitted of the charges in court, a judge continued to allow successive restraining orders, and ordered him to pay $1,000 per month for spousal and child support, a sum he could not afford, he said.

''People believe the government brings good and honest accusations, but that is not always so,'' Nollet said. ''It's a sword hanging over your head. You're one unsupported accusation away from being arrested.''

But advocates for battered woman say the lawsuit is a disturbing attempt by angry men to reassert control they lost after the state's anti-abuse laws grew tougher in the late 1980s.

''I think they have a very weak claim,'' said Cheryl Garrity, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women. ''I think the courts attempt to be fair and there are due process provisions in place. I don't think judges come to the situation thinking men are automatically the problem.''

Garrity says laws requiring the subjects of restraining orders to relinquish their firearms and leave their homes are crucial to protecting victims of battering.

''This (lawsuit) is clearly an attempt to undo the protections that battered women have gained over the past 10 years,'' she said. ''These laws were put in to stop upfront offenses. We can't wait until the woman is almost dead to start protecting her.''

Both Garrity and Grossack said they believed the lawsuit was the first of its kind to be filed against a state's trial court system.

Gov. Paul Cellucci said he supported the state's current law on restraining orders.

''There has been some abuse in divorce cases, and sometimes it's abused, and I think it's unfortunate,'' he said. ''But I think for the most part it's a law that has worked to reduce violence in the home.''

Copyright 1999 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing, Inc.

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