For weeks we were intrigued by the news and headlines of the court proceedings involving the defamation action by Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard. We watched their lives behind closed doors as a married couple play out to audiences everywhere. However, the lessons learned from that trial are not unique to celebrity couples. There are lessons learned that are true in any family law court proceeding.
1. Courtrooms are open to the public. While certainly, a celebrity couple may garner more of the public’s attention than a typical family law matter that does not mean your matter is a private affair. Courtrooms are open to the public unless a judge specifically closes the courtroom based on a demonstrated showing of privacy interests that outweigh the public right to know. That means your neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and even just observers of the legal system are free to walk into your courtroom and take a front-row seat to hear all the salacious details of your marriage.
Similarly, your court papers that are filed are not private. Whatever you file with the court that the court has not sealed can be requested by anyone who asks for a copy.
2. You lose control of the outcome. Once you step into a courtroom, you lose control over how the matter will be decided. That decision rests not with you and your partner on how best to resolve the issues of custody, financial support, or division of assets. Rather, that decision now rests solely with the judge or, if applicable, the jury. The best you can do is to put forth your best case, defend against the attacks of the opposing party, and hope that the outcome is in your favor.
3. Credibility sometimes matters more than truth. While the court is tasked with determining the truth or falsity of someone’s statements, in family law cases, it is often difficult to determine in a short period of time who is telling the truth. The judge then is faced with the task of deciding who appears to be more credible. Some people are, by the very nature of their personality, excellent communicators. In some respects, the Heard-Depp testimony became a battle of two actors playing the role of their lifetime. Yet, we all know first impressions can be deceiving.
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid some of the hard lessons learned. Talk with your lawyer about how to potentially close the courtroom if you are expecting family, friends, or just strangers to show up for your hearing or trial. In addition, if sufficient facts exist, it may be possible to treat at least some of your public filings as confidential. Finally, if you cannot settle the case, at least make sure you are well prepared for not only responding to the questions asked by your lawyer but the potential questions you may be asked by the opposing attorney on cross-examination.
About the Author:
Marlene Pontrelli is a Member in our Phoenix office and co-chair of the firm’s Family Law Practice. Marlene is a certified specialist in family law. Her practice focuses on all aspects of family law, including dissolution, post-dissolution, paternity, child custody, and child support matters. She is admitted to practice in California and Arizona. She is a judge pro tem for the Superior Court of Maricopa County in family law. She has extensive trial and appellate experience, including appearing before the Arizona Court of Appeals, Arizona Supreme Court, and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ms. Pontrelli has written several books, including as a co-author of the Divorce in Arizona book. She is a frequent lecturer in the area of family law and has conducted workshops throughout the country. Ms. Pontrelli is also an adjunct professor at The Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University, where she teaches the family law class. Marlene may be reached in our Phoenix office at 602-285-5081.