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Case Reopens Debate on Private Judges

Times Staff Writer

Starting today, Michael Jackson will figure in another courtroom drama -- this one centering on attempts by Los Angeles Superior Court officials to show that celebrities and other rich people can’t buy special treatment from the legal system when they have business disputes or want to get divorced.

For years, Jackson’s custody battle with ex-wife Deborah Rowe sometimes seemed to suggest the opposite point.

Despite the media firestorm that accompanied the pop star when he was tried and acquitted last year on child molestation charges, he managed to keep the custody dispute largely out of the public eye.

He did so by hiring a private judge -- a service that celebrities and rich people regularly use.

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These judges are privately paid by the parties in the dispute, but are required to follow the same rules of public access and procedure used in public courtrooms.

But earlier this year, stung by the appearance that celebrities were buying special treatment, Los Angeles County court officials announced a push for greater compliance with the rules governing private judging. They also moved the Jackson case back into the public system.

This morning, lawyers for the pop star and his ex-wife are expected in the teeming, somewhat dilapidated downtown courthouse -- a far different environment from the sleek conference rooms where some hearings had been held.

On the agenda are Rowe’s efforts to win visitation with her and Jackson’s two children, Prince Michael and Paris, as well as attorney’s fees.

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Court officials also ordered lawyers for Jackson and Rowe to publicly file all legal documents since the divorce this week. As the papers have flooded in, they have opened yet another window into Jackson’s unusual life.

Jackson and Rowe, who had been a nurse in the office of Jackson’s dermatologist, were married in 1996.

Rowe gave birth to Prince Michael Joseph Jackson Jr. in 1997 and to Paris Michael Katherine Jackson in 1998. In 1999, Rowe filed for divorce.

Jackson got custody. Rowe received an $8-million settlement, along with a house in Beverly Hills. At first, she also had the right to visit the children every 45 days, but in 2001, she went back to court and asked the private judge, Stephen Lachs, to terminate her parental rights.

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She said she felt like “an intrusion on their life and they’re going to have enough intrusions as it is,” according to a transcript. “I’m absolutely around if Michael ever needs me, if the children need me for a liver, kidney, a hello, whatever, I will always be around for him.”

But she added, “These are his children. I had the children for him.... They’re his kids. They’re not my kids.”

At that time, Lachs, a well-regarded retired family law judge, agreed to terminate her parental rights.

But after Jackson was arrested on charges of child molestation, Rowe reconsidered. She went back to Lachs and asked him to void that order.

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Lachs did, saying that he had erred when he terminated Rowe’s rights to Paris and Prince Michael without having someone represent the children’s interests. But he stopped short of allowing Rowe increased visitation without further evaluation of the situation.

That ruling set off a furious round of fighting between lawyers for Jackson and Rowe.

At one point last summer, lawyers for Jackson said Rowe was “trying to hold up Michael Jackson for money using the children as the tool.... I believe she is one step below a common crook or extortionist.”

Jackson’s lawyers also took Lachs’ decision to the Court of Appeal, which sided with Rowe in a ruling published earlier this year.

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The ruling, in which the justices said Lachs had abdicated his responsibilities, brought scrutiny to the practice of private judging. The secrecy of many of the proceedings before private judges also became an issue, with the media complaining that files and hearings in Jackson’s case and others were being inappropriately closed.

Court officials issued stern reminders that court documents and hearings must remain public, and parties seeking to seal documents must make the request to public court officials.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge William A. MacLaughlin, who has led a compliance effort, said the Jackson case “raises the issue ... of the wisdom” of permitting people to use private judges, because many documents were missing from the public file of the case.

Still, since the reform effort more than a dozen cases -- including the divorces of Jessica Simpson, Eddie Murphy and Rod Stewart -- have gone out of the public system to private judges. It remains to be seen what effect the court’s new emphasis will have.

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Only the Court of Appeal has the formal power to tell a sitting judge, even a private judge, what to do by overturning a decision.

Advocates for private judging, meanwhile, defend the system. What they provide is not secrecy, they say, but efficiency, especially in a court system so overburdened that a complicated divorce can take months and consume thousands of dollars in lawyer’ fees because it has to compete for space on a sitting judge’s crowded calendar.

Marta Almli, one of Deborah Rowe’s attorneys, said she sees both sides.

“There are some persuasive arguments ... why it is important that even divorce cases be open to the public,” she said. “For example, so public watchdogs can ... make sure people are treated fairly. But I don’t see any public watchdogs going into court and making sure that John and Jane Doe are being treated fairly or consistently. I only see people looking at the Michael Jackson cases.”

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And now that case is back in a public courtroom.

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com


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