Divorce Corp. Review, Part 1: The Unreliable Narrator

This is part one of a five-part review of Joseph Sorge's documentary, "Divorce Corp." See also:

Up on the screen, a woman stands before a judge and pleads her case. "I haven't done anything to this court. I haven't done anything to him." The judge appears stoic, perhaps even dismissive. Without even looking at the officers standing nearby, the judge says flatly, "She will be arrested for contempt of court." Moments later, the woman lunges across the bench toward the judge, arms outstretched.

The crowd hoots and claps.

These are Joseph Sorge's people.

I am at a private screening of Divorce Corp., a documentary by Joseph Sorge that bills itself as "[a] shocking exposé of the inner workings of the $50 billion a year U.S. family law industry." The screening is sponsored by the National Parents Organization, largely a fathers' organization that advocates for family law reform in favor of "shared parenting, where both parents have equal standing raising children after a separation or divorce." It is apparent that many of these men have been injured by the family court system. Much like the dramatic characters in Divorce Corp., they have struggled through the divorce system and come out the other side with empty wallets and far too little time – if any – with their children. They are angry.

Joseph Sorge knows how these men feel. He went through a highly contested divorce himself, subsequent to which he was ordered to pay more child support than he felt was just, along with $260,000 of his wife's legal fees. He appealed these rulings and lost. It is easy to understand, then, why Sorge has an axe to grind with family law attorneys and judges, an axe that he swings wildly throughout the film.

Divorce Corp. presents a highly selective view of family court.

There is no doubt that the family court system is in dire need of reform. As Divorce Corp. rightly highlights, the cost of divorce in America is staggering – by some accounts, as high as $50,000 on average for a contested divorce – and the adversarial system too often leaves a swath of destruction in its wake. By the end of a litigated divorce, spouses can no longer sit in the same room together, children are torn between two households, and the couple might have spent more money on lawyers than the total amount of the marital estate they were fighting over. It's an absolute mess.

But those very real problems do not justify the generous license Sorge takes in his narrative, picking and choosing facts at his leisure, distorting the words of the esteemed family law professionals who generously lent their voices to the project, and in some cases, outright lying.

Consider the scene in the opening paragraph above. From the brief video clip Sorge provides, one might think that the woman's reaction was justifiable anger against a tyrannical judge. Yet when we view the entire clip in context, the reality is much more complicated. The setting was a hearing on the husband's request for a domestic violence restraining order. As Sorge explains later in the film, false abuse accusations are powerful weapons in contested divorces. But here, the judge had no opportunity to determine whether the husband's accusations were false, because the woman would not let him finish his story. She was not held in contempt merely for disagreeing with the judge, as one might think from Sorge's edited clip, but because she refused to follow the most basic of courtroom protocols: taking turns. I do not think the cheers from the audience would have been so enthusiastic, if they had been given the whole story.

Then there is the story of Judge William Adams, a Texas family court judge who made national headlines when his daughter released a YouTube video (trigger warning) of him violently beating her. Sorge shares a segment of the gut-wrenching video, followed by the horrifying revelation that Judge Adams is still on the bench. Here is what Sorge does not tell us: (1) the beating occurred in 2004 and the daughter did not release the video until 2011, after the statute of limitations for criminal charges had expired; (2) Judge Adams was suspended for a year, while the State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigated the case; (3) the Commission was powerless to oust Adams, but county commissioners did cut his pay while other judges received a cost-of-living increase; (4) the state will no longer present him with cases involving violence against children; and (5) Adams is up for reelection in 2014. [UPDATE 3/5/14: In the least surprising turn of events ever, Adams lost his bid for reelection.]

Let me be very clear: Judge Adams is despicable and has no business sitting as a family court judge. He should have been fired, and a system that prevents his firing under these circumstances is badly in need of reform. But again, the problem lies with Sorge's credibility as a narrator. His telling of the story gives the appareance that Adams remained on the bench without so much as a slap on the wrist, which is absolutely false. As in the attack described above, Sorge has selectively chosen his facts to paint the most appalling picture possible of the family court system – a picture that may be based partly in fact, but that comes with a thick veneer of deceit. Only with prior knowledge or further research into these situations could somebody know the more nuanced truth.

The same goes for Sorge's selective handling of David Hoffman's interview, from which one might think Hoffman has zero respect for family law attorneys. Hoffman is presented simply as a Harvard Law Lecturer; Sorge neglects to mention that Hoffman is himself a family law attorney and advocate of increased mediation and other alternatives to litigation in the family court system. At a panel discussion following the screening, Hoffman was quick to explain that he thinks the majority of family law attorneys and judges are decent people trying to do a good job.

Similarly, Judge Thomas Zampino (ret.) wrote the following to Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, regarding some of his comments that had been taken out of context:

About 2 years ago I was asked to be part of a documentary about divorce around the world.... None of the questions seemed controversial and the 5 man crew was very professional.... [Judge Zampino describes how his quotes lacked important context.] I had no reason at any time to think that the released film would portray me or our profession in a negative way. I think I share the same passion for what we do as you profess to hold for yourself. I was shocked at the title and the trailer.... Please circulate for me and I hope this context is helpful.

I have to imagine that other participants in the film feel similarly hoodwinked.

Far from an objective documentary about divorce, this is a film with an agenda.

As noted above, it is clear that Sorge has little regard for the family court system, including the judges and lawyers who work in it. Here, in a nutshell, are some of his major allegations:

  • The family courts have intentionally positioned themselves as an opaque system that sets its own rules without any oversight or Constitutional protections.
  • The family court system is so complicated and self-serving that it is impossible to get anything resembling justice without spending every penny you have.
  • The high cost of divorce is no accident; judges, lawyers, and other family law professionals are colluding to line their pockets with divorcing couples' savings.
  • Children are pawns in the system who end up going to the highest bidder or better liar, regardless of actual parental fitness.
  • We should adopt the Scandianvian divorce system (which Sorge treats as a single entity); it is a simple, administrative process without lawyers, with a strong presumption of shared parenting when children are involved.

In his efforts to make these points, Sorge does raise important concerns about the family court system, which is indeed in great need of reform. Unfortunately, he is so intent on making his case that he commits one of the very sins he so vehemently condemns: he gives the truth backseat to his personal agenda. In doing so, he has created a film that delights his intended audience but lands with a painful thud on anybody with enough knowledge to spy the man behind the curtain.

This is a multi-part series; I will be writing in greater detail about specific issues raised in Divorce Corp. In the meantime, here are some links to other articles about the film:

UPDATE 1/25/14: In the first version of this article, I wrote that Judge Zampino's email was addressed "to Mark Baer (an outspoken ADR advocate who wisely declined to participate in the fim)." In fact, Judge Zampino's email was addressed to Attorney Marzano-Lesnevich (per the corrected version above), with a request to circulate it. Attorney Baer received the email via Nancy Zalusky Berg.

KEEP READING: Divorce Corp. Review, Part 2: Babies and Bathwater