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Simpson Custody Arbiter Advocated Fathers' Rights

Courts: Critics say Thomas Schulte brought bias to O.C. bench. Others laud him as fair in a tough area of the law.

September 17, 1996|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — As a private attorney before going on the bench, the man who will decide the fate of O.J. Simpson's children earned a reputation as a forceful advocate for fathers' rights.

One question being hotly debated by local attorneys as the custody case resumes today is whether Commissioner Thomas Schulte has left that advocacy behind.

While many family lawyers say Schulte negotiates the emotion-fraught arena of custody law with evenhanded calm, others are convinced he has shown bias in his judgments in favor of fathers.

The commissioner's critics point to a recent case in which Schulte awarded unmonitored visitation rights to a father against the advice of a psychologist appointed by the court. The psychologist had determined that the man's sexual behavior raised a "red flag" and that he might behave inappropriately around his 6-year-old son.

"I was very concerned that [Schulte] did not see protection of the child as the paramount issue," remarked the mother's attorney, Jeffrey W. Doeringer, when asked about the case.

Several attorneys called Schulte an outstanding commissioner who was fair and exhibited no bias in the cases they brought before him.

"I think he is an excellent jurist," said Judi Curtin, a family law specialist. "He has gained a strong reputation."

Schulte, who has toiled in relative obscurity since his appointment in 1991, is poised to issue a ruling that will be watched around the world.

At issue is whether O.J. Simpson, tried and acquitted for the murder of his ex-wife, will regain custody of his two children, Sydney and Justin, who have lived for the past two years with the parents of the slain Nicole Brown Simpson.

Since the custody hearing began, Schulte has moved to keep tight control over how much information makes it to the public. He has banned press and public from the Simpson hearings, and in response to questions submitted by The Times issued the following statement: "As a judicial officer, it is inappropriate for me to respond to your questions at this time."

Schulte, 51, worked closely in the 1980s and early 1990s with groups that advocate strengthening the hand of fathers in custody cases.

Two prominent groups, United Fathers of America and Fathers United for Equal Justice, say they regularly referred custody cases to Schulte until he became a commissioner in 1991.

"Tom made sure fathers got their due," said Tony Testa, president of Garden Grove-based Fathers United for Equal Justice. "We were sorry to lose him to the bench."

In the 1980s, Schulte practiced law with Henry James Koehler IV, a vocal fathers' rights proponent who represents only men in custody disputes. Koehler was at the time, and remains, legal counsel to the National Congress for Fathers and Sons, a national group dedicated to expanding fathers' rights in custody cases.

"He was my protege," is the way Schulte is described by Koehler, who now practices in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach. Koehler lists his phone number as 1-800-LAWS-4-MEN.

The fathers' rights movement is dedicated to strengthening the hands of fathers in custody disputes. Its premise is that mothers have traditionally enjoyed a greater claim to children in custody disputes than fathers.

Several family law attorneys gave Schulte high marks in his handling of custody cases--often emotional tug-of-wars between ex-husband and wife.

Two years ago, Schulte and another commissioner were honored by the family law section of the Orange County Bar Assn. for their service.

Dawn E. Johnson, a family law attorney, said Schulte's emphasis on the rights of fathers may have been little more than a good marketing tactic.

"If you have a lot of referrals from fathers, that's good for business," she said. "I don't see him as having a bias."

Jennifer King, another family law specialist, said Schulte is very good at negotiating between parents in the often explosive arena of child custody.

"He follows the law, he reads it on his own, and he is pretty good at discerning fact from fiction," King said. "Parents can't always agree, and you are asked to step in between them. It can be a very gut-wrenching experience."

Other lawyers active in family law practice say that Schulte's affiliation with the fathers' rights movement has carried over to the bench.

Some lawyers who regularly practice family law said they were hesitant to criticize a commissioner before whom they had to appear.

One experienced family lawyer, who spoke on the condition that his name would not be revealed, said that when he is representing a woman, he always tries to shop around for someone else to hear the case.

"No attorney in his right mind would represent a mother in a custody case in front of Commissioner Schulte. He has historically been biased," the lawyer said.

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