The Petraeus Affair has all of the twists and turns of a good spy movie. For a divorce attorney like me, the “sex, lies and email” aspect is a very familiar theme in my law practice. But one of the more troubling side dramas that came out this week seems to implicate the integrity of the Court system in custody battles. Apparently, General David Petraeus and General John Allen, both at the tippy top of the food chain in our military, became involved in the private custody battle of Jill Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawan.
It is reported that not one, but both of the Generals sent favorable character letters to the Family Court Judge presiding over the custody case. One would presume that they were motivated to do this because of their close relationship with Jill Kelley. The exact nature of that relationship is not fully clear. It is also not clear how well these two men know Natalie Khawan, and what compelled them to personally vouch for her competency and fitness as a mother to her four year old son.
It is very common in custody battles for witnesses (including neighbors, employers, friends, doctors, and teachers) to attest to the fitness of a parent. The witnesses can share their opinion about the parenting capabilities of the parent by submitting a sworn affidavit, writing a letter to the Court, or giving testimony on the stand. In almost all circumstances, sworn live testimony is preferred, since it is subject to cross examination. Normally, character letters are submitted by individuals who know the parent and child very well, and who have first hand knowledge or observations about the custody situation.
There may also be some disturbing ethical implications of this scenario. It is possible that Petraeus and Allen may have abused their power and authority to influence a Family Court Judge. The more you learn about Natalie Khawan, and the alleged campaign of parental alienation against her child’s father, the more her entitlement to custody is called into question.
It is very commonplace for my clients to express concern that the opposing side has undue influence with the Judge. The emotional intensity of a custody battle exacerbates feelings of paranoia and anxiety. When there is a bad result in Court, or a case is not proceeding smoothly, it is natural to feel suspicious that the “Judge was paid off” or “the other lawyer is connected politically.” I assure my clients that in virtually every case, the Judge is impartial and unbiased. In reality (despite what you see on television or in the movies) very few Judges are corrupt or subject to inappropriate influence.
The letters to the Judge in Natalie Khawan’s case that came to light suggest that Petraeus and Allen may have exercised bad judgment in attempting to sway a Judge in a civil case involving a four year old boy. The letters also demonstrate that power and entitlement can bring forth corruption and undue influence into any arena.