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Appeals court probes judge's comments for bias in custody hearing

A father's claim that a judge's comments in a child custody hearing indicated judicial bias in favor of his ex-wife is receiving media attention focused on discussion of a judge interjecting opinions about a case that he or she is presiding over.

Although the case involves a judge from Minnesota, the matter is certainly relevant to family law and divorce-related cases in Georgia and elsewhere throughout the country.

In the 2011 custody hearing, the man's former spouse told the judge that one of her reasons for seeking primary custody of the couple's three children was her desire to distance them from a particular Bible-based belief of their father. The judge interjected from the bench that she was familiar with the belief, but stated that, [A]fter I heard it once, I dismissed it."

The judge gave custody of the children to the mother, with the father appealing the decision on various grounds. One of those reasons was the judge's comment dismissing his religious views.

A three-judge panel of the state's appellate division recently ruled in the matter, upholding the lower court's ruling while at the same time delving deeply into the judge's comments in a 30-page opinion. The court found that the judge maintained impartiality despite her stated opinions.

One appellate court judge dissented, though, finding it "troubling" that the lower court's decision was "intertwined with the religious view." That judge viewed the lower court as impermissibly taking a lead role in the hearing by interjecting personal bias.

One commentator on the case noted that the father's attorney did not object to the judge's comments during the hearing, which undercut the father's argument on appeal.

Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Bible verse prompts appeal of Stearns County child custody case," Jeremy Olson, April 11, 2013

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