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Trouble In Splitsville


That is, if you know it yourself. One day this fall, an associate of Dominic Barbara, the flamboyant Long Island lawyer best known for representing Mary Jo Buttafuoco, came to court to commence a curious divorce. Two months earlier, their client, a baby-faced investment banker with a wispy beard and a seven-figure income, had dumped his girlfriend of seven years and run off to Vegas to marry a petite, busty Dominican girl -- a day after she gave him a lap dance at Scores. It was an expensive gyration -- she'd maxed out his credit cards, hocked a ring he'd given her, cracked up his Porsche, and changed the locks on his East Sixties condo after moving her boyfriend in. But that's not the truly odd part: After two hours in court, she'd seduced him all over again with a symphony of sighs, pouts, and sullen stares, gotten $7,500 and a sports-utility vehicle out of him -- and then left 60 Centre Street leading him by the hand.

"Was that funny or what?" Barbara blurts out.

Funny is rare in divorce court, rarest of all in those cases that seem to go on forever. Often, delays are the fault of a spouse who is vengeful ("Fuck the bitch"), emotional ("Screw the bastard"), stubborn, or trying to grind an ex down. Other times, says Felder, "They understand they're going to lose, but they want to make a point." Then there are the "people who just can't let go," says Lotwin. Adds Ronald Perelman's petite, chic attorney, Adria Hillman, "Sometimes, they have no other life." These are the cases where husband and wife end up locked in a death grip. "Two scorpions in a bottle," divorce lawyers call them.

That seems to be what's going on this October morning as Justice Jacqueline Silbermann presides over a hearing in the case of actor John Heard and his ex-girlfriend and fellow thespian Melissa Leo, who've been battling over their 12-year-old son for ten years. In the process, Heard lost a bid to gain sole custody after he was arrested, when he returned his son late after a weekend visit and then slapped Leo in front of two policemen. He became a father's-rights advocate, was sentenced to probation and counseling after he made 100 calls to Leo's home over two months, was forced to pay most of Leo's $340,000 legal bill, and ran through twelve lawyers of his own.

In this latest skirmish, over an alleged violation of an order that keeps Heard off the property of the child's school, it's clear that Silbermann is inclined to refuse Leo's badly drafted request; representing herself, she's asking for a contempt ruling against Heard because he'd arrived early to pick the child up for a visit and stepped onto school property to watch him play soccer.

But, ignoring his latest lawyer, Heard refuses Silbermann's gentle request that he swear out an affidavit explaining how innocent his actions were. "You're opening the door for her to write down any allegation and force me to respond!" he yells. "There'll be no end!"

Faced with Heard's obstinacy, Silbermann advises Leo how to perfect her faulty motion, then reads them both the riot act. "There's a little boy here," she scolds. "His name is Jack. Let's litigate less and parent more." In response, Heard keeps shouting. "We're 125 miles away from this child now! Ten years! A million dollars!"

Out in the hall half an hour later, Heard is still screaming.

A onetime corporate lawyer, Silbermann became New York's Administrative Judge for Matrimonial Matters in 1997. Sitting in her robing room, she explains how divorce cases are managed. New York used to consider it a priority to keep people married; now the state's court administration wants cases to end quickly. Forty-five days after a divorce action is filed, a judge is assigned to the matter. Forty-five days after that, "I'm taking charge," Silbermann says.

Small cases generally settle early in the process. In big cases, the judge sets a financial-discovery time line and brings in asset evaluators and a guardian to represent the interests of minor children, paying them out of marital assets "as the judge deems appropriate," Silbermann says. "The good people make a fortune!" She acknowledges the complaints of both lawyers and litigants about court-appointed neutrals, particularly since enhanced earning capacity became a factor in big-money divorces. "It's a big stinky issue with the judges as well," she allows. Silbermann, who wrote the Golub v. Golub decision, thinks the distribution of intangible assets has gone too far. "Even if Dr. O'Brien had never become a surgeon," she points out, "you can't come back on equitable distribution. There has to be finality."

(Of course, finality is relative. Lately, some moneyed spouses have taken to declaring bankruptcy in order to stay divorce proceedings and wipe out equitable-distribution agreements -- although that doesn't work with maintenance or child support.)

"If you're power-hungry," Silbermann says about her job, "there's no better part to be in. Enormous power is vested in a matrimonial judge -- and that's only the money. What about the children? Parents get dysfunctional. And the more they spend on litigation, the less there is for little Joseph. Do you want to take from him and give to your lawyers? I have several cases where neither parent is fit to take the kid." She smiles wryly. "So I'm taking them. Do you really want me to raise your child?"

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