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Simpson Custody Arbiter Advocated Fathers’ Rights

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a private attorney before going on the bench, the man who will decide the fate of O.J. Simpson’s children earned a reputation as a forceful advocate for fathers’ rights.

One question being hotly debated by local attorneys as the custody case resumes today is whether Commissioner Thomas Schulte has left that advocacy behind.

While many family lawyers say Schulte negotiates the emotion-fraught arena of custody law with evenhanded calm, others are convinced he has shown bias in his judgments in favor of fathers.

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The commissioner’s critics point to a recent case in which Schulte awarded unmonitored visitation rights to a father against the advice of a psychologist appointed by the court. The psychologist had determined that the man’s sexual behavior raised a “red flag” and that he might behave inappropriately around his 6-year-old son.

“I was very concerned that [Schulte] did not see protection of the child as the paramount issue,” remarked the mother’s attorney, Jeffrey W. Doeringer, when asked about the case.

Several attorneys called Schulte an outstanding commissioner who was fair and exhibited no bias in the cases they brought before him.

“I think he is an excellent jurist,” said Judi Curtin, a family law specialist. “He has gained a strong reputation.”

Schulte, who has toiled in relative obscurity since his appointment in 1991, is poised to issue a ruling that will be watched around the world.

At issue is whether O.J. Simpson, tried and acquitted for the murder of his ex-wife, will regain custody of his two children, Sydney and Justin, who have lived for the past two years with the parents of the slain Nicole Brown Simpson.

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Since the custody hearing began, Schulte has moved to keep tight control over how much information makes it to the public. He has banned press and public from the Simpson hearings, and in response to questions submitted by The Times issued the following statement: “As a judicial officer, it is inappropriate for me to respond to your questions at this time.”

Schulte, 51, worked closely in the 1980s and early 1990s with groups that advocate strengthening the hand of fathers in custody cases.

Two prominent groups, United Fathers of America and Fathers United for Equal Justice, say they regularly referred custody cases to Schulte until he became a commissioner in 1991.

“Tom made sure fathers got their due,” said Tony Testa, president of Garden Grove-based Fathers United for Equal Justice. “We were sorry to lose him to the bench.”

In the 1980s, Schulte practiced law with Henry James Koehler IV, a vocal fathers’ rights proponent who represents only men in custody disputes. Koehler was at the time, and remains, legal counsel to the National Congress for Fathers and Sons, a national group dedicated to expanding fathers’ rights in custody cases.

“He was my protege,” is the way Schulte is described by Koehler, who now practices in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach. Koehler lists his phone number as 1-800-LAWS-4-MEN.

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The fathers’ rights movement is dedicated to strengthening the hands of fathers in custody disputes. Its premise is that mothers have traditionally enjoyed a greater claim to children in custody disputes than fathers.

Several family law attorneys gave Schulte high marks in his handling of custody cases--often emotional tug-of-wars between ex-husband and wife.

Two years ago, Schulte and another commissioner were honored by the family law section of the Orange County Bar Assn. for their service.

Dawn E. Johnson, a family law attorney, said Schulte’s emphasis on the rights of fathers may have been little more than a good marketing tactic.

“If you have a lot of referrals from fathers, that’s good for business,” she said. “I don’t see him as having a bias.”

Jennifer King, another family law specialist, said Schulte is very good at negotiating between parents in the often explosive arena of child custody.

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“He follows the law, he reads it on his own, and he is pretty good at discerning fact from fiction,” King said. “Parents can’t always agree, and you are asked to step in between them. It can be a very gut-wrenching experience.”

Other lawyers active in family law practice say that Schulte’s affiliation with the fathers’ rights movement has carried over to the bench.

Some lawyers who regularly practice family law said they were hesitant to criticize a commissioner before whom they had to appear.

One experienced family lawyer, who spoke on the condition that his name would not be revealed, said that when he is representing a woman, he always tries to shop around for someone else to hear the case.

“No attorney in his right mind would represent a mother in a custody case in front of Commissioner Schulte. He has historically been biased,” the lawyer said.

Some of the commissioners’ critics have pointed to the recent case in which Schulte allowed unsupervised visits of a 6-year-old boy by his father, despite accusations of sexual abuse and warnings from the court-appointed psychologist that any visits by the father should be monitored by a third party.

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In allowing the father to visit his child without a monitor, Schulte overturned an earlier order by Superior Court Judge Jonathan Cannon.

The custody case was filed in Orange County court in 1992.

According to court records, the mother, Elizabeth, charged that her husband, Mark, had fondled her young daughter by an earlier marriage and exposed himself to the daughter and their young son.

Court records show that the daughter, now 13, told court-appointed psychologist Kenneth Fineman that her stepfather, the estranged husband, had inappropriately touched her and exposed himself to her.

“She had a very clear picture of these various incidents,” Fineman testified.

The husband’s attorney, John Horwitz, denied that the man had done anything improper.

At a July 17 court hearing, Fineman told Schulte that the accusations of both the mother and daughter were credible, and that the father’s behavior raised a “red flag.” He recommended that the father be allowed to visit his son only with monitors present--at least until Fineman had completed his examination.

“The information available is pervasive in suggesting that [the father] has had a significant problem in the area of sexuality, and this problem likely persists,” Fineman wrote in a report to Schulte.

The same court report said that the father “is in need of continued treatment to deal with issues of inappropriate arousal, exhibitionism and impulsive qualities to his personality that may allow for the acting out of inappropriate behaviors.”

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Despite such testimony, Schulte decided last month to allow the father to have unsupervised visits with his 6-year-old son, pending the final outcome of Fineman’s examination. That examination might not be complete for another month.

At the hearing, Schulte accused the mother of delaying court proceedings in order to deny the father visits with his son.

“Your client has no intent of expediting this case,” Schulte told the mother’s lawyer, Albert Graham. The judge further cited a line in Fineman’s report that the mother sometimes tended toward “histrionic” behavior.

Allowing the unmonitored visits, the judge said, “will get this case to trial. Your client will not have any more motive or ability to continue this trial ad infinitum.”

“The court can find no reliable evidence, no weight of the evidence that would indicate that the child is at risk with the father,” Schulte said.

The mother vehemently protested the new arrangement.

Her attorney offered to have her 13-year-old daughter testify about her stepfather’s behavior toward the girl, but Schulte refused.

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The unsupervised visits began two weeks ago.

One of the mother’s attorneys filed an emergency request with the 4th District Court of Appeal, but it was denied.

The mother would not talk about the case. Her principal attorney, Graham, declined to get into specifics of the case, but said “the testimony of Dr. Fineman raised great concerns.”

Jeffrey W. Doeringer, the attorney who handled her appeal, said he was “very disappointed” by Schulte’s ruling. He said he thought the child is potentially at risk.

He declined to comment further.

Horwitz, the father’s attorney, did not return repeated calls for comment. After his attorney could not be reached, the father was also asked to comment and declined when he was reached by telephone.

* BLOW TO SIMPSON: Civil case judge may bar key allegation of defense team. A3

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