The world can be an awfully confusing place when you’re a kid.

Take Brennan, for example. He’s 7 years old, lives in southern Maine and, well, we’ll just leave it at that because the poor little guy never asked for the legal limelight into which he’s been propelled.

Maine’s court system, all the way up to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, knows all about him.

So do members of the Maine State Bar Association, particularly those who caught last week’s issue of the Maine Lawyers Review.

And because his father happens to be a U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa, more than a few people halfway around the world know all about Brennan, too.

Why all the attention?

It started, as these things so often do, with a divorce.

Brennan’s parents split up in March 2007 after seven years of marriage, which included Dad’s back-to-back deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

Dad, who claims Mom has thwarted his efforts to spend quality time with Brennan over the past few years, has since remarried and lives with his new wife and their two young children at the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, Okinawa.

Mom, who has struggled in the past with bipolar disorder and substance abuse, lives in Maine with Brennan and an adult male friend who comes and goes.

Detailing Dad’s and Mom’s many differences would take all day – actually, at a trial in York District Court in May 2010, it took two days.

But the bottom line is that in August, District Court Judge Michael Cantara ruled that Brennan’s primary residence should remain with his mother and that the boy should spend summers and at least two school vacations – none of which has yet to happen – with his father.

Cantara’s decision raised many an eyebrow: In reaching it, the judge brushed aside a 24-page recommendation by Justine Tanguay, a Scarborough attorney appointed to serve as Brennan’s guardian ad litem (legal advocate) in the case, that the boy would be better off living overseas with Dad.

“There is concern that some of (Mom’s) behaviors and actions may be negatively impacting Brennan,” Tanguay wrote after spending a full year investigating the boy’s life here in Maine. “Though Brennan is an intelligent and for the most part good-natured child, he deserves and needs a safe, stable and nurturing home in which to grow.”

Tanguay also noted that throughout her lengthy investigation, “Brennan reiterated to a number of people that he wants to live with his father in Okinawa, Japan.”

Cantara saw it differently.

The judge found that the mother, while struggling to stay afloat both financially and emotionally, “has demonstrated courage and tenacity by successfully coping with mental health issues, substance abuse and poverty.”

At the same time, Cantara found that the father, who pays $144 per week in child support, “has demonstrated courage in his career choice” with the Marines and showed “palpable” dedication to Brennan during last year’s court proceedings.

Nevertheless, Cantara concluded, allowing Brennan to move to Okinawa “would be too disruptive, and not in Brennan’s best interest.”

Even if Brennan wants to live with his father, stepmother and two half-siblings?

“Given Brennan’s young age,” wrote Cantara, “the court does not place much weight on this expressed preference.”

Dad appealed last fall to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court – and that’s when this became more than just another hotly contested child-custody case.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and the five other justices who heard the appeal, while apparently troubled that Cantara had rejected Tanguay’s recommendation, upheld his order.

“We cannot say the court’s factual findings on this issue were clearly erroneous,” the justices wrote last month. “That we might have made a different determination is not a basis for vacating the court’s order.”

Normally, that would be about it. But in this case, they were just getting warmed up.

“Although we are affirming the judgment, we are concerned that the trial court did not appreciate the urgency created by the child’s separation from his father,” the justices continued. “We were dismayed to learn during oral arguments in April that, in nearly two years, the child has had no visits with his father at his father’s residence and that during that time, the child had not seen his father except for brief visits related to the father’s presence in Maine for this litigation.”

The law court also chastised the District Court for taking 20 months to decide the case, noting, “This is an unacceptable delay in a case involving a child’s residence and/or contact schedule.”

Finally, the justices bristled at the thousands of dollars in legal and guardian ad litem fees the case has generated – in addition to his own lawyer’s bill and Tanguay’s fee, Dad was ordered by Cantara to pay $5,000 of Mom’s legal fees.

“This is an extraordinary expense for parties whose combined annual incomes total just over $70,000,” the justices wrote. “Courts hearing family cases are encouraged to cap and/or monitor the costs associated with litigation whenever necessary to protect the child’s best interest so that the funds needed to feed, clothe and educate children are not spent on generating guardian ad litem reports or paying substantial attorney fees.”

End of story?

Not even close.

In an article published in last week’s Maine Lawyers Review, attorneys Michael Asen and Margaret Lavoie of Portland, Dana Prescott of Saco and Kristin Gustafson of Augusta lambasted the state Supreme Court.

The court’s opinion, claimed the lawyers, turned up the pressure on an already overburdened District Court system with “words that have shaken the family law and judicial community more than any decision in recent memory.”

“We have created a system where judges are expected to be all things to all people at all times,” wrote the four lawyers, none of whom are parties to the case. “The system simply does not work.”

While each Supreme Court justice has two full-time clerks, they noted, “the District Court employs three clerks for all district courts around the state.”

And while the Supreme Court (which waited seven months to hear the case) scolded Cantara for taking 90 days after trial to decide the matter, the lawyers countered that the District Court judge actually “should be applauded for being able to turn around a case this complicated so quickly.”

The judges and lawyers will have ample opportunity to continue their finger-pointing next week when the Maine State Bar Association holds its annual summer meeting at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. Nothing jazzes up a legal gathering, after all, like a good difference of opinion.

And little Brennan?

He’s wrapping up second grade, where, he once told Tanguay, he’s “too quick for the bullies” because “my wizard powers can be used at school.”

Then, if all goes according to plan later this month – and the court has ordered Cantara to use “whatever means are necessary” to ensure that it does – Brennan will trade center stage in Maine’s judicial system for a much-needed summer with Dad.

And, at long last, an escape from all the arguing.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]