State Senator Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, listens to a presentation during the Education Caucus of the Arkansas General Assembly meeting at the Association of Arkansas Counties building in Little Rock this Monday, August 10, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat Gazette / Thomas Metthe)
Legislation that would establish joint custody of children as the default award in divorce cases was brought up Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on objections from state judges and the Arkansas Bar Association.
Senate Bill 18 from Senator Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would create the “rebuttable presumption that joint custody is in the best interests of the child” in state family law regulations. This presumption could either be overridden by a judge on “clear and convincing evidence” or by parental consent.
Clark said he tried to introduce the new standard because “it is about the need for fathers to raise children”.
The current 2013 law states that joint custody is the “preferred” outcome.
Since this law was passed, lawmakers advocating greater custody of fathers have expressed frustration at the failure of judges to act on the will of lawmakers. Attempts to pass laws similar to SB18 died two years ago in a House committee.
[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill 7: 1. Senator Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, was the only member of the committee to vote against the bill.
Ouachita County Circuit Judge Hamilton Singleton, a member of the State Judiciary Council, and Angela Mann, a representative of the Bar Association, both spoke out against the bill, arguing that it would raise the bar for a judge to seek custody a parent in the bar to restrict the child’s interest.
“It’s too high a bar,” Singleton said. “It’s a bar that most lawyers cannot reach, and it is certainly a bar that self-represented staff cannot reach in domestic relationships.”
However, several Republicans came across Singleton benchbooks that weren’t distributed to judges until 2018, noting that case law “indicates that joint custody is not ordinarily preferred” – five years after lawmakers voted in favor.
“It almost sounds like this book is saying, ‘We know the law says this, but the courts don’t care,” said Senator Jim Hendren, R-Sulfur Springs.
Nobody spoke out in favor of the bill on Wednesday after Clark said he canceled several fathers who signed up to speak. Clark said these fathers will share their testimony when the bill reaches the House Judiciary Committee.
On Wednesday’s vote, SB18 was sent to the Senate for consideration.