Marcia Clark's Husband Cites Trial in Custody Fight : Family: He asks to be named primary parent, saying she hardly sees sons. Case shows problems of working mothers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her prosecution of O.J. Simpson has made her one of the best-known working mothers in America, and now it has landed Marcia Clark in a bitter custody battle with her estranged husband, who contends that her grueling workload is harming their two young sons.

In court papers recently filed in their divorce case, Gordon Clark argues that he should be given primary custody of their children because his wife, with whom the boys live, is rarely home these days.

At most, he contends, Marcia Clark sees their sons, ages 3 and 5, an hour a day during the week. "I have personal knowledge that on most nights she does not arrive home until 10 p.m. and even when she is home, she is working," Gordon Clark maintains in a Feb. 24 Superior Court declaration. Clark, 36, a computer engineer with regular hours, says he is usually home by 6:15 every night.

"I was always there for our children and assumed at least equal responsibility for their care," stated Gordon Clark, who now sees the children on two weekday evenings and cares for them on alternate weekends. "While I commend (Marcia Clark's) brilliance, her legal ability and her tremendous competence as an attorney, I do not want our children to continue to suffer because she is never home, and never has any time to spend with them."

In a statement released by her attorney, Richard Bloom, Marcia Clark said Wednesday: "I am devoted to my two children, who are far and away more important to me than anything. I feel it is inappropriate of me to discuss details of my marital dissolution case or child custody issues in the media."

Bloom added, "I would ask the public and the press to respect my client's privacy." The custody dispute highlights the intense and conflicting demands that haunt many working parents--particularly mothers, who traditionally have assumed greater child care duties--as they try to juggle the rewards and responsibilities of family and career.

And it illustrates how, yet again, the Simpson case has become far more than a murder trial. It is a primer on society, whether the topic be race relations, the justice system or working women.

The tug between work and children has already emerged in the trial.

Last Friday, Marcia Clark said she could not stay late for a proposed evening session because she had other obligations. This week, defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. suggested that Clark may have used child care as a ruse to delay the testimony of defense witness Rosa Lopez.

Clark retorted indignantly that she was "offended as a woman, as a single parent, as a prosecutor and as an officer of the court."

Clark, 41, filed for divorce June 9--just days before the double murder that would catapult her into the national spotlight.

The Simpson case has touched the Clarks' divorce proceedings in ways that reach beyond the custody issues.

In December, Marcia Clark, who employs a housekeeper, contended in a court declaration that she needs more financial support from Gordon Clark because her child-care costs have ballooned during the Simpson trial.

"I have been working a six- or seven-day week for as many as 16 hours per day," Marcia Clark stated. "As the court well knows, this is probably the most sensational and watched proceeding in the history of the Los Angeles judicial system. . . . I now need baby-sitters for the weekends while I work and someone to spend the evenings with my two children."

Gordon Clark's divorce attorney declined comment on the case. Edward Blau, his personal attorney, said: "This divorce was going on before the trial started. It has its own life. . . . His major interest is that nothing be said or done that affects the children in any way."

As divorces involve more and more working couples, the issue of job demands is playing an increasing role in custody battles and prompting litigation around the nation, family law attorneys say. "We have new issues and new times and certainly two working parents is one of them," observed attorney Joan Patsy Ostroy.

"People want to have it both ways," Ostroy said. "Men want high-earning, professional wives. And women want nurturing, caring, participating fathers. And then when they split up, the men often complain about the hours and stresses and demands of the (woman's) profession and the women complain that the men aren't happy just seeing the kids on the weekend."

The arguments over work hours cut both ways, Ostroy said. In one of her recent cases, a mother was fighting a father's request for 50% custody of the children because her ex-husband was often away from home on business.

Similarly, family law attorney James R. Eliaser commented that in cases involving preschool children, "the reason why men traditionally haven't gotten a 50-50 share (of custody) is the argument that he's working and . . . (in effect) giving the housekeeper 50% of the child care."

"In Marcia's case it's the opposite of what we usually see," Eliaser said. "If the parent is merely going to turn the rearing of a child over to a housekeeper, then the court is going to look at that."

Indeed, in a recent Michigan court decision a judge awarded custody of a 3-year-old girl to her father because he could leave the child with a relative as opposed to a day care facility, which the girl's student mother used.

"That case brought once again into the public eye several questions," said USC law professor Scott Altman, "one of which is whether we can trust judges accurately to evaluate the effect of working outside a home by a single parent on the child's welfare." Altman said the Michigan case is being appealed.

The courts have to look at a child's relationship with the parent, Altman said, not whether the parent works.

In a 1986 decision, Altman said, the California Supreme Court rejected the notion that mothers are lesser parents because they work, or that a parent who earns more money should necessarily be given custody because he or she is more affluent.

"California has taken quite a strong stand against wealth discrimination and discrimination against working mothers," Altman said. In Clark's case, he continued, "I don't see why a court would regard this temporary period (of the Simpson trial) as a basis for a permanent change in custody."

In the Clark divorce, it is Marcia Clark who earns more money--$96,829 a year, nearly twice as much as Gordon Clark. In asking for more financial support from him, she cites substantial medical bills over the past two years, rising child care costs and the financial drain of having to dress for a national television audience.

"Because of the notoriety of the trial with press and television coverage, I have purchased five new suits and shoes at a cost of $1,500," Clark said in court papers. "I am under constant scrutiny and on public display. It has been necessary for me to have my hair styled as needed and to spend more money on my personal care and grooming. As I am a county employee, none of these expenses are reimbursed."

Marcia Clark's courtroom comment about personal obligations struck a chord with Jill Lansing, another attorney in a high-profile homicide case. She was the lead counsel for Lyle Menendez, who with his brother is charged with murdering their parents. But Lansing decided not to represent Lyle Menendez in his retrial.

"My daughter was less than 2 when I started the case and she was 6 when I finished (the first trial)," Lansing said. "And I made the decision I did not want to sacrifice that much time again."

"It is very difficult," continued Lansing, whose husband, also a lawyer, helped when she could not be home. "And I think historically it has been the man who had the career that was very time intensive.

"Now that we're in situations where you have two people who have those kinds of demands, it's a question of establishing priorities. Something has to be sacrificed. You cannot do a case like the Simpson case or the Menendez case . . . and spend a lot of time with your family. You just can't do both."

Times staff writers Tim Rutten and Andrea Ford contributed to this story.

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