Here’s a quick rundown of some major law/psychology stories that made news this week:
The divorce of actor Tom Cruise and actress Katie Holmes
Based on multiple sources, it sounds like this case centers on the religious training of the couple’s six-year-old daughter. Cruise is a Scientologist, and apparently, Holmes no longer wants her daughter to grow up immersed in that belief system. I’ve served as a child-custody expert in multiple contentious divorce cases, and I’ve served as a mediator in multiple other contentious divorce cases. Of particular relevance to the Cruise/Holmes case, I recall one of the cases that I mediated in which a similar-aged child’s religious training was the central issue because one parent’s belief system involved strict dietary rules that the other parent refused to enforce. It was an extremely tough case because one parent truly believed that the child’s eternal salvation could be compromised by eating foods that the other parent found perfectly acceptable. That couple learned some important lessons, such as: 1) If a religion is that important to one of you, then you probably ought to pick a spouse to whom it’s similarly important, and 2) A child is not competent to make an eternal commitment, whether it be to accept or reject a parent’s religion, so it’s the parents’ job not to force the child to commit one way or the other. This second lesson doesn’t mean that the parents shouldn’t share their beliefs with the child; it just means, in my opinion, that they shouldn’t push the child to commit to anything for life and beyond — i.e. that they should keep the child’s commitment options open — until that child can make a free, independent, fully-informed, adult choice. (And before anyone applauds me here, perhaps believing that I’m talking about a particular religion, I’m talking about all religions — I see no reason why anyone would want a person to commit to a religion for all eternity as an incompetent child other than fear that the child won’t make the same commitment as an adult, and if that’s the reason, then it’s all the more prudent to spare the child any guilt, confusion, and regret in adulthood about a choice made under parental pressure, albeit well-intentioned, in childhood.)
California’s legislation to permit more than two parents
In related news, believe it or not, there’s legislation in progress in California to permit a child to have more than two parents. So, for example, one half of a lesbian couple could be artificially inseminated in order to achieve pregnancy, and then both members of the lesbian couple and the sperm donor, if desired, could all have equal parental rights in the child’s life. And believe it or not, California isn’t the first state to consider this — it’s already the law in several other states. Personally, I don’t support it. I believe that there’s something fundamentally important to a child about having two parents, a father and a mother, and I believe that a child’s father and mother are either the man and woman whose sperm and egg created the child or — if one or both of them is/are unwilling or unavailable — a man who willingly, lovingly agrees to step in and assume the responsibilities of the biological father and/or a woman who willingly, lovingly agrees to step in and assume the responsibilities of the biological mother. In addition, as a practical matter, having served as a child-custody expert for years now, I believe that children have to deal with enough chaos when their two parents divorce and start new relationships and involve step-parent-figures in the children’s lives — I don’t think we ought to add to that chaos by allowing more people in that mix to have legal rights with respect to the children. Just imagine being a child with your residential time divided between three, four, or more households, each containing both a legal “parent” and a step-parent figure. Sound like a fun way to grow up? I’ve actually done this study, asking hundreds of young adults to specify the type of household in which they’d most want to be raised if they had to be reborn with no knowledge of their prior lives, and guess what? About as close to 100% as you can statistically get in a study like this, 99%+, picked a married mother and father who love each other and the child.
JetBlue pilot not guilty by reason of insanity
You may recall that several months ago, a JetBlue pilot had to be restrained by passengers and crew and forcibly removed from a commercial flight after running through the cabin shouting incoherent warnings of impending doom. Charged with interference with a flight crew, a federal offense, the pilot has since been found not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge accepted, and prosecutors did not dispute, a forensic psychological assessment of the type that I routinely perform, which concluded that the pilot, at the time of the offense, was suffering from mental dysfunction of such severity as to render him unable to know either what he was doing or that it was wrong (i.e. criminal). He’ll now face mandatory psychiatric treatment and probably the indefinite (i.e. permanent) revocation of his pilot’s license but not prison (luckily for him — the sentence for interference with a flight crew can be up to 20 years). The airline is still facing lawsuits filed by passengers for negligence resulting in emotional distress, alleging that the airline should have known that the pilot was unfit for duty. I’ve also performed that type of forensic psychological assessment (fitness to fly), and while I suspect that there were risk factors in play with this guy that periodic, thorough assessment could’ve uncovered, I don’t know that JetBlue didn’t utilize such procedures, plus, the guy did have 12 prior years with the airline that were reportedly without incident. So, it’ll be interesting to see how these civil cases play out — I predict that they’ll settle, in part because a jury finding of negligence could set a precedent requiring more frequent and intensive psychological assessment of pilots, which I think would be a good thing but which would be a significant and permanent new labor cost for the airline.
No charges for former Secretary of Commerce
You may recall also that several weeks ago, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who has since resigned from that post for reported health reasons, was involved in a seemingly-bizarre series of automobile accidents in a span of just minutes in broad daylight. At that time, some speculated that he had been under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but I cautioned that the cause could also have been something benign like a seizure, an acute hypoglycemic reaction, a stroke, a prescription-drug interaction etc. Well, the diagnostic and toxicology test results reportedly are in, and there apparently were no illicit drugs or alcohol involved in the accidents (although toxicology reportedly did register a small amount of the prescription sleep medication Ambien). Apparently, the conclusion is that the Secretary had a seizure at the wheel. Accordingly, he reportedly is receiving treatment for a neurological condition and will not face any charges in connection with the accidents.
Zimmerman re-released on bail
George Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder but maintaining self-defense in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, has been re-released on bail, albeit raised from $150,000 to $1,000,000 (of which he only had to post 10% in cash). You may recall that Zimmerman’s original bail was revoked for several weeks after prosecutors discovered that he had access to considerably more money than he originally reported to the court, much of it raised from online contributions to a legal defense fund. While awaiting trial, Zimmerman will be required to wear an electronic tracking device, remain within the county, maintain a strict curfew, and check in regularly with law enforcement.
Lifeguard fired for saving a drowning swimmer
Finally this weekend, as much of the nation tries to beat record-breaking heat, beach lifeguard in Florida was fired after leaving his post to save a swimmer who was drowning outside of the lifeguard’s watch area. Apparently there were other lifeguards on the scene who kept watch over the absent lifeguard’s area, no one was harmed or even endangered, and one person’s life was saved. After the national media caught wind of this travesty, the lifeguard reportedly was offered reinstatement but declined. Okay, maybe this isn’t really a major law or psychology story, but I was a lifeguard for several years in high school and college, and I would’ve made the same choice as this lifeguard (i.e. refused to watch a person drown because my employer said I couldn’t leave my area), who I hope is now receiving multiple, and probably better-paying (although lifeguarding was a lot of fun), job offers from local employers who admire the choice that he made.
Stay cool, and have a great weekend!