Almost unbelievably, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s excruciatingly long custody battle over their 5 youngest children just got knocked back to square one this past Friday by an Appellate Court decision.
I believe that they are going to have to start the custody part of their divorce case all over.
As I will explain, if they had lived in New Jersey and had sought to obtain a divorce here, their case would be long over, custody would have been resolved long ago, and there would never have been an appeal that set this case back so far because any such “appeal” would have been viewed as frivolous and would likely have been denied.
Jolie and Pitt were only married for 2 years (2014 through 2016).
Yet their custody case in California has been going on for 5 years (2016 through 2021).
The “divorce” itself happened in 2019.
In 2019, the Court allowed them to “bifurcate” their divorce case, which means that although they are divorced, custody was not resolved and was being addressed by a “private judge”.
We don’t have “private judges” nor do we allow for “bifurcation” of divorce cases here in New Jersey.
In New Jersey, arbitration is essentially an alternative dispute resolution process where the parties agree to hire a “private judge”. The arbitrator can be a retired judge, an attorney, a CPA, a mental health professional, or pretty much anyone else the parties agree upon.
This appears to be similar although not identical to the California concept of a “private judge” (although I note that California offers divorce arbitration as a separate concept to the concept of using a “private judge”. Nonetheless, I do not see too many distinctions, other than the fact that a “private judge” appears to work out of a Courtroom whereas arbitration usually occurs in a conference room under more relaxed conditions.)
In any event, the “private judge” selected by Jolie and Pitt was a retired California Family Court Judge (who was actually the Judge who had married them in 2014.)
The private judge, who had been favoring Pitt in the custody dispute, was just relieved of his responsibility on Friday, July 23, 2021 because of a conflict of interest that he has with Pitt’s divorce lawyer based upon certain “business dealings” between the two of them.
Initially, the trial court judge denied Jolie’s motion to have the private judge disqualified based upon the apparent conflict of interest.
However, when Jolie appealed the decision to a higher Court, the Appellate Court agreed with Jolie that retired Judge John Ouderkirk did not adequately disclose certain of his “business relationships” with Pitt’s attorneys to Jolie and her attorneys, thereby setting up a possible bias on the part of the Judge in favor of Pitt and against Jolie.
The decision means that the custody fight over the couple’s five minor children (their first child is 19 and so not the subject of the case), which was nearing an end, will likely be starting over.
First, to me as a NJ divorce lawyer, it is interesting to note that if their divorce happened in NJ, it is extremely unlikely that a Judge would have allowed them to “bifurcate” the custody part of their case from the divorce itself.
Indeed, the circumstances that Jolie and Pitt find themselves in with a “never ending divorce” is precisely the reason NJ does not bifurcate divorce cases, namely that the case will likely take an unreasonably long length of time to end.
Additionally, I’m not so sure that the “conflict of interest” that caused the California Appellate Court to disqualify retired judge Ouderkirk would have been resolved the same way in NJ.
Although the matter is private and details are pretty sparse, it appears that the alleged “conflict” was that Judge Ouderkirk has some “undisclosed business dealings” with Pitt’s lawyer that were not made known to Jolie’s lawyer.
Those “Undisclosed business dealings” appear to be simply the fact that Judge Ouderkirk is also acting as an arbitrator or “private judge” on some other cases being handled by Pitt’s lawyer simultaneously.
Mediators and arbitrators are involved in many cases simultaneously. Are they really expected to disclose to me in a given case all of the other cases that they are working on with my adversary?
Are they really expected to disclose to my adversary in a given case between us that they are working on other cases simultaneously with me?
I would never expect that type of disclosure,and I don’t know any other NJ divorce lawyer who would.
Pitt’s lawyer argues that Jolie’s lawyer simply made the argument because Jolie was losing the custody case and Jolie was essentially trying to “get a second bite at the apple” by getting a new arbitrator who might be more inclined to favor Jolie as the primary custodial parent.
I agree with Pitt’s lawyer.
(By the way, as a completely unrelated aside, if you ask me to choose which actor I prefer, I would choose Jolie.
How about you?)