For the first time in decades, a divorce order was reversed last week. Texas’ Appeals Court said, “The judgment of the trial court is reversed” and ordered a new trial.
This was a victory for attorney David Moody, one of a handful of lawyers fighting to preserve marriage, on behalf of his client, Doak Runberg.
This is a stunning development. Since “No-Fault Divorce” or unilateral divorce became the norm in the 1970s, those who file for divorce always win. Divorce law is a scandal. In divorce cases, there is no “due process” as supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Thirty-eight million divorces have been granted since 1970. Lawyers are hired by both sides. Some argue the divorce should be granted, usually on grounds of “irreconcilable differences.” Other attorneys are hired by defendants who opposes a divorce, arguing their differences are reconcilable.
How many cases have been won by the defendant? None, until this case. The defendant in a divorce case always loses.
How can that be justice?
Thirty-five million children have divorced parents. While many do well, such children are 3 times as likely as those from intact homes to be expelled from school or to have a baby as an unwed teenager, and are 10 times likelier to live in poverty.
Yet according to a recent poll by George Barna, 39 percent of all Protestants have divorced vs. only 38 percent of atheists/agnostics and 35 percent of “born again” Americans. (Only Catholics divorce at a lower rate of 25 percent.)
Mr. Moody notes that no-fault divorce was begun by Russian communists who wanted to destroy the family because it is a source of traditional values. He wrote an article for the Lubbock, Tex., newspaper saying divorce lawyers have a conflict of interest. In 55 percent of cases, they take the plaintiff’s side who files for divorce. And in 45 percent of the cases, they represent defendants who don’t want a divorce.
By contrast, in health care, attorneys work for one side or the other. Some represent insurance companies and are loyal to the defense side. Others (like John Edwards) represent plaintiffs and are paid on a contingency basis when they win cases. But if a defense attorney took a case of someone injured in an accident, he would be fired by insurance companies as untrustworthy.
Doak Runberg read Mr. Moody’s article and hired him to fight a divorce filed by his wife, Lisa Ann Runberg, on March 20, 2003.
Mr. Moody took a Biblical stand to seek “peace first, before you go to war.” He wrote her attorney, Douglas Woodburn: “This precious family has five kids. What we ought to do is work together to reconcile this marriage. Let’s keep our legal fees down as much as possible. I am charging only $50 an hour,” when he usually charges $150.
Mr. Woodburn, who earns $250 an hour, had no interest in peace. Six days later Mr. Woodburn had Doak and Lisa Ann Runberg appear before a judge and Mr. Runberg agreed to a temporary order to give $2,500 a month in child support and $500 a month in spousal support plus insurance and health care for the children.
Texas allows a divorce to be granted in 60 days, if it is uncontested. On May 22, 2003, Mr. Woodburn got the court to hold a secret trial, which granted the divorce in a “default judgment” against Doak. At the time of trial, Doak had not filed an answer. However, he was not given notice of the trial and did not appear at it.
On June 20, Doak Runberg asked for a new trial, since he had been uninformed about the trial. That was denied by the court six days later without a hearing. With Mr. Moody’s help, he appealed on grounds that since he had “appeared” in the case agreeing to the temporary order, the court should have informed him of the May 22 trial. “His right to due process of law was violated,” Mr. Moody argued.
Appeals Chief Justice Phil Johnson concurred, that the “trial court abused its discretion in failing to grant a new trial because Doak’s failure to attend the final hearing could not have been intentional…. The judgment of divorce is reversed.”
Lisa Ann remarried last September, so the divorce will probably be granted ultimately.
However, the case demonstrates divorce defendants do have the right to due process of law. Those who want to save a marriage should ask prospective attorneys, “What side are you on?” If they take cases from both sides, ignore them and hire an attorney like Mr. Moody (firstname.lastname@example.org) who fights exclusively for defendants.
Michael J. McManus is co-founder and president of Marriage Savers and a columnist for “Ethics & Religion.”