When Politics and Contracts Collide

Many people are under the often mistaken impression that judges – particularly in a state such as Texas, where judges are elected on partisan ballots – are basically political creatures who use the bench to push their own political opinions. Judges, however, are paid to be impartial and apply law to facts, wherever that may lead them. While there are exceptions, most judges try to be as objective as they can. And when the legal case is intertwined with a red-hot political issue, it’s often damned-if you-do-damned-if-you-don’t when it comes to ruling.

Currently, a Texas judge is coming under fire after ruling that a lesbian couple would not be allowed to continue living together based on an earlier divorce agreement. Following the recent ruling, gay and lesbian groups assailed Collin County State District Court Judge John Roach Jr. based on his decision to uphold a provision in a 2011 divorce agreement between Joshua Compton and his former wife. In the signed divorce decree, both parties agreed that neither of them could spend the night with a “romantic partner” while the couple’s children were staying under the same roof. The provision, which is included in many divorce decrees in Texas and other states, can be rendered moot if one of the divorcing parties remarries.

That’s not an option for Mr. Compton’s former wife since Texas law prohibits same-sex marriages. Judge Roach upheld the provision barring overnight at-home stays following a request filed by Mr. Compton’s attorneys. The judge noted that the so-called “morality clause” applies to both genders without any special consideration for gay or lesbian couples.

While one can debate the political issues involved, the judge’s role is to interpret the agreement made without reference to the larger cultural issues. Generally speaking, judges are to give plain meaning to the language before them regardless of the judge’s personal preferred outcome. Judges generally do not rewrite contracts that have been agreed to by all parties unless there is another legal reason to do so, such as when a contract provision is unconscionable or prohibited by statute.

Which raises a couple of relevant points: parties to a contract are expected to adhere to the obligations to which they agree, even when they later change their minds. Otherwise, parties would not be able rely on the written promises of others, which would wreak havoc on all kinds of ordinary transactions.

Secondly, this dynamic illustrates why hiring an attorney can be so important. A good attorney will ensure that their client understands all of the provisions and that they are aware of any particular circumstances that might bear on the agreement. Also, the advent of same-sex marriage in other parts of the country has implications for Texas attorneys who represent same-sex married folks who move to Texas after tying the knot. You can be sure they are already exploring the complicated issues involved and explaining them to their clients.

After all, that’s what attorneys are trained to do.
 

Posted: 8/23/2013 9:32:27 AM by TCLE Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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