From the Publisher: Domestic violence: out of the frying pan…

By David Yas
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
May 4, 2009

Joseph Ureneck really wants me to write that wives physically abuse their husbands just as often as husbands physically abuse their wives.

He wants me to write that the vast majority of women are lying when they claim that they have been beaten by their husbands.

And he wants me to write that the law is so flawed in Massachusetts that men accused of domestic violence lose everything important in their lives without a real chance to defend themselves.

I can’t write that. I won’t. But Ureneck has my attention.

His group and others like it are plotting to defeat judicial nominees whose philosophies don’t comport with their own.

Spurned by the courts and angered by a society that has been sensitive to battered women, fatherhood rights groups have landed on our turf, the judicial system.

Buttoned-downed and organized, they are now making a point of loudly protesting judicial nominees who have shown any sort of sensitivity to domestic-violence issues.

Ureneck didn’t sound like a fanatic when I spoke with him over the phone. The chair of the Fatherhood Coalition, Ureneck in recent days urged the rejection of two judicial nominees, Laurie MacLeod and Sydney Hanlon, at their confirmation hearings. Both judges were ultimately confirmed (MacLeod to the Palmer District Court; Hanlon to the Appeals Court).

Said Ureneck: “We saw two individuals who were proactive in promoting the 209A [restraining-order] regime. … Our perspective is that there is something akin to a Holocaust going on, and so it is worth rejecting a judicial nominee.”

Ned Holstein, executive director of Fathers and Families, claims that “in a relatively short period of time, we will look back on this as an embarrassing era. It reminds me of the McCarthy era, or the anti-immigrant hysteria, or other periods of time when we have singled out particular groups.”

Holstein and Ureneck utter things that many of us would say simply defy reason.

Ureneck estimates that between 80 to 90 percent of women who claim they have been beaten, or are in genuine fear, are lying.

Both men are convinced that the notion that men are more likely to do harm to women than vice versa is a myth, largely citing the comprehensive work of a professor of psychology named Martin S. Fiebert.

“It’s a seriously flawed argument that men are inherently violent,” Ureneck declares.

Holstein says: “There’s no question … it’s not a matter of debate.”

I asked Holstein: Can’t most men overpower most women? Isn’t that common sense?

“When you actually think about it, it’s not common sense at all,” he says, claiming that most people know of an incident of a wife becoming violent with her husband. He recalls the image of a wife hitting her husband with a frying pan.

“Culture thinks that’s funny,” he says. “But if a man did it, it would be unacceptable.”

Lydia Watts, executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center, says what a lot of us think: No. There is no epidemic of women fabricating tales of domestic violence.

She says: “I have heard thousands of victims’ stories and barely ever doubted one.”

I believe Watts. Or at least I want to. But the uneasy truth is that I don’t know for sure.

Watts says that Fiebert’s research is flawed, and perhaps it is. But I cannot stand up and say that Ureneck and Holstein are 100 percent wrong.

And, in fact, voices, including that of Governor’s Councilor Christopher A. Iannella, have made the point at confirmation hearings that reform is needed in the law to give divorced dads a fair shake.

Ureneck and Holstein may be on the fringe. They may even be downright sexist. (Mark Charalambous, who writes a column for the Fatherhood Coalition’s website, wrote on the subject of then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton: “There has never been a female president. Ergo, no woman candidate can be perceived as ‘presidential,’ assuming a rational interpretation of the word. When one thinks of the phrase ‘commander in chief,’ a pear-shaped woman in a pants-suit doesn’t come to mind.”)

But they also may have found a comfortable forum to state their case.

Hanlon, a leading voice against domestic violence during her days as a practicing lawyer, heard no fewer than five speeches from representatives from the Fatherhood Coalition at her confirmation hearing. That’s a lot, even given the Jerry-Springer-like hysteria that can erupt at any given Governor’s Council hearing.

As it turns out, Ureneck had rallied his group with the following post on the coalition’s website: “Please rendezvous with Joe Ureneck who will be at the Governor’s Office and will be wearing a badge that says, ‘Vote No on Hanlon.'”

The Fatherhood Coalition then uploaded to YouTube video footage of the hearing that its members had shot – in 13 parts. I’ll let you know when I’m done watching them all.

And this sort of thing will continue.

“This is a fast growing movement,” Holstein says of calling out judges and judicial appointees. “It’s not new in concept, but it is new in execution.”

I am reminded of a line from the film “Hoosiers,” when a narrow-minded fellow is concerned that Gene Hackman’s new-to-town, unconventional basketball coach is turning the small town of Hickory upside-down. He tells the coach: “Look, mister, there’s two kinds of dumb: the guy that gets naked and runs out in the snow and barks at the moon, and the guy who does the same thing in my living room. First one don’t matter; the second one you’re kinda forced to deal with.”

Yes, judicial nominees are going to have to deal with groups like Ureneck’s and Holstein’s.

Watts, of the Victim Rights Law Center, says these groups “are free to do what they want, but the frustration I have is that this is a calculated effort against judges. These are judges who have shown strong understanding and commitment, and they are penalized for doing so.”

The modern manifestations of free speech – public hearings, websites, the vast chaos of the blogosphere – tend to turn the sullen into spokespeople.

Seeing these groups protest at judicial confirmation hearings gives dads who have been accused of domestic violence some hope. But is it false hope?

Before showing up at a hearing and telling their tale, men embittered by their treatment in the legal system should demand answers.

Are these leaders arguing facts, or are they playing on emotions? Will attacking a judicial nominee keep an unqualified person off the bench, or will it merely stain the reputation of someone who will serve Massachusetts well?

Fatherhood rights groups should be careful that their attacks are really meant to improve the judiciary and are not just borne out of the most contemptible of motives: revenge.

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