CONNECTICUT DIVORCE: DIVORCE SALOON INTERNATIONAL TALKS with Connecticut Divorcée ELIZABETH RICHTER
Interviewer: Marion TD Lewis
Edited by: Xixi Gomez
If ever the term “influencer” applied to anyone, it certainly is Elizabeth Richter. This woman is a one woman demolition derby against the judicial system in Connecticut. During her divorce from her Husband Alex, a process that spanned over six years, Elizabeth really went to war against a system she describes as unfair and corrupt and skewed against women. Elizabeth Richter’s divorce case was a catalyst for getting the Family Court Reform Movement in Connecticut going and her story continues to inform people that they are not alone, that their experiences are not isolated incidences and that the family court corruption they are facing is real and needs to be addressed by people of conscience. Below is an edited version of the chat between Elizabeth Richter and Divorce Saloon Editor in Chief, Marion TD Lewis
Divorce Saloon : Good Morning, Ms Richter, welcome to our podcast.
Elizabeth Richter: Thank you very much. It is good to be here!
Divorce Saloon: We have been wanting to meet you and to talk with you for some time! You are a bonafide hero in Connecticut it seems, certainly if we can believe Divorce in Connecticut Blogger Catharine Sloper who seems to believe you are just this paragon of amazingness. How do you respond to that?
Elizabeth Richter: Oh, please! Ha Ha Ha
Divorce Saloon: No, I really do mean that, Elizabeth. You have had a real impact on the divorce industry in Connecticut especially on the court/judicial side, and a lot of people think you are just amazing. Btw, is it ok for me to call you Elizabeth? Or do you prefer Mrs Richter?
Elizabeth Richter: Elizabeth is just fine!
Divorce Saloon: OK. Elizabeth. But… first of all, and don’t be offended by this but I have always been fascinated with women who keep their married names after divorce. You would think after they divorce the first thing they would want to do is get rid of that name. Why do some women keep their married name, in your opinion? Is it to be the same as the kids? Or just laziness to go and change it? Or is it that they still are in love with their ex husbands? Are you still in love with your ex??
Elizabeth Richter: I think it is really important to have the same last name as your children. It comes in handy in a lot of ways. But I think perhaps it does say that 26 years of my life with another person was meaningful. I don’t deny that. Plus returning to the name of my family of origin, which as you know wasn’t that fantastic, wasn’t exactly the better option either. I have considered taking on a whole new name!
Divorce Saloon: Interesting! I just think of my own personal self and I cannot imagine wanting anything to do with the ex after a divorce, least of all carry his name. But that is just me. I am a little bit petty, I guess. Well, be that as it may, you are fascinating to us no matter what your name is. Okay?
Elizabeth Richter: Thank you. And don’t worry. You get past things as life goes on. The ex and I even had dinner the other day with the girls.
Divorce Saloon: Wow! Really? That is pretty cool. I am very impressed with you, Elizabeth. You realize you are one of the influencers in the divorce world in Connecticut, right? Actually, in the divorce industry everywhere, right?
Elizabeth Richter: Really?
Divorce Saloon: Well, yea! I actually heard about your case, as I said, from the blog Divorce in Connecticut which is a very sort of in-your-face, no holds barred journalistic type of exposé blog, I should say. It really cuts to the heart of a lot of the things going on in Connecticut and some of it is frankly disturbing if its all true. Just generally, not even in terms of your personal situation, can you tell us what the hell is going on in the Connecticut divorce courts, in a nutshell?
Elizabeth Richter: Essentially, starting around the year 2000 with the Governor’s Commission on Custody, Divorce and Children, attorneys, mental health personnel, and judges have come together in order to make family court a financial bonanza for them, largely at the expense of women, I would say, but men have also been affected.
Divorce Saloon: I see. That’s pretty serious. So, tell us, when did you actually get divorced in the Connecticut courts?
Elizabeth Richter: In April 2008
Divorce Saloon: And how long did it take from start to finish? Roughly speaking?
Elizabeth Richter: There were 2 years for the divorce and 4 more of post judgment litigation.
Divorce Saloon: So all together six years. Were there children involved? Were you fighting over custody?
Elizabeth Richter: Definitely, but I think that the children were used to coerce me in regard to the financial matters. This often happens where women are concerned.
Divorce Saloon: I see. About how old were your children at the time of your divorce?
Elizabeth Richter: 8, 10, and 15!
Divorce Saloon: And they are how old now?
Elizabeth Richter: 17, 19, 24
Divorce Saloon: Wow! Time does fly, doesn’t it?
Elizabeth Richter: Yes, thank God. They’ve grown out of the system.
Divorce Saloon: Thank goodness for that. One of the things that fascinates me about your case is the fact that you acted as your own attorney for several years in this process? Is this true?
Elizabeth Richter: Yes! Absolutely!
Divorce Saloon: That is insane! I don’t know how you managed that. And how many judges were actually involved in your case?
Elizabeth Richter: Maybe 8 or so by the time that I was done! That is not unusual for a case like mine.
Divorce Saloon: OMG. That’s a lot of judges for one divorce case. Usually there is only one, no? And so, according to my research you took your case as far as the New York Court of Appeals – by yourself. Is that right?
Elizabeth Richter: I sure did, the 2nd Circuit Court! I think I kind of ran out of energy there. I also did not feel like presenting the oral argument in the case because I was like, no way can I do that! I’m good but not that good. I could have underestimated myself! But I’ll never know for sure at this point!
Divorce Saloon: And you probably had reached a certain closure by then too without realizing and so you just figured: “ok. I’m done. They all got the memorandum now.” Let me ask you this: What was the main issue in your appeal? Was it about custody or finances or what? What really was the thing that just had you seeing red?
Elizabeth Richter: The issue was disability discrimination because throughout the case, my ex husband made accusations that I was crazy. This to me was a form of coercion I was subjected to. I considered that a violation of the ADA under the “perceived as” category.
Divorce Saloon: That is very complicated to prove, I think. Especially when you are your own lawyer. Why did you decide to go it alone without legal counsel, Elizabeth? Because it sounds like really complicated legal issues that you are describing?
Elizabeth Richter: I was suing the CT Judicial Branch and a judge and you just will not find an attorney willing to do that.
Divorce Saloon: I see. So, was it a mistake of law or fact in the courts below in your opinion? Did the judge apply the law incorrectly or did they have the wrong facts?
Elizabeth Richter: The lower court simply chose to ignore the facts in my case and acted as if they did not exist. It was one of the most blatant examples of corruption I’ve ever seen, to be honest. What it represents is the judicial nullification of ADA law which is definitely happening in the Federal District Court of CT, not only in my case but in many others. I can say that from my personal experience. I don’t want to comment about elsewhere in the country.
This also has to do with a little known federal court doctrine that has emerged recently in federal court known as Rooker-Feldman which essentially means that federal courts cannot be used as courts of appeal for state court judgments. Of course, the ADA is supposed to supersede State Court judgments anyway, but federal courts across the country have been using this doctrine to throw out thousands and thousands of civil rights cases and ADA cases each year. This doctrine is very likely not constitutional and is a serious threat to our civil liberties and our basic freedoms across the board.
Divorce Saloon: Wow. I was not aware of this doctrine. Do you think that the outcome of your case would have changed if the courts had recognized your disability rights as you asked them to and if so, how?
Elizabeth Richter: Absolutely, my legal rights were blatantly ignored in my divorce case. I was denied the right to mediation, denied the right to basic discovery, denied the right to competent legal representation. It was a travesty of justice from beginning to end. Furthermore, I was taunted and mocked because of my disability background. Nobody in America today should be treated like this.
Divorce Saloon: Will you take the case further? To the Supreme Court for example?
Elizabeth Richter: The likelihood of a case making it to the Supreme Court with a self represented party is highly unlikely. Even with an attorney it is highly unlikely!
Divorce Saloon: I see. That is too bad. But even though you lost the case on appeal so far, a lot of people credit you with recent judicial reforms in Connecticut. How do you feel about this? And what types of changes have actually occurred that you can discern?
Elizabeth Richter: I think my work was part of the birth of the family court reform movement here in the State of Connecticut and also in New York and New Jersey. We have also partnered with activists in Massachusetts and the State of Maine. In Connecticut, we have been able to insert safeguards into the law related to the work of Guardians Ad Litem as well as to establish a code of ethics for these professionals. I think this is very important, although some believe we should abolish these professionals altogether and are not satisfied with anything else. I think we are continuing to organize and gain strength and that we will continue to impact the system as we move forward. I certainly think we have started a dialogue with the Connecticut Judicial Branch in regard to this subject, a process of self scrutiny for the Judicial Branch which I hope will have a positive outcome. Many legislators are far more informed of the corruption and dysfunction of the Connecticut Family Court than ever before, and that has been quite valuable as well. We look at this as a long term project, rather than just one kamikaze hit and we’re done!
Divorce Saloon: Kamikaze hit. That is a great way to put it. You can’t just do a kamikaze hit. These things take time. As a woman of a certain age who found herself at the mercy of the courts during your divorce and having such young children at the time, and having survived albeit after a vicious and unrelenting fight, what advice would you give other women getting divorced in Connecticut or anywhere for that matter? What did you learn from this whole experience?
Elizabeth Richter: I think you have to pace yourself for a lengthy battle both before and after the divorce. It is very important to document every darned thing that is said and done by holding on to all the letters, reports, and receipts you’ve been given, writing up memos to report on what has occurred, and making sure that nothing gets by you which could harm you or your children in the future. So if a therapist puts a negative comment in a report, you need to challenge it right away. Don’t wait for the bomb to go off six months down the line.
Divorce Saloon: Tell me honestly, were you ever afraid you would have lost your children during this divorce process? Did you fear losing custody to your ex due to these mental health issues/accusations that you describe and the discrimination you experienced due to the perceived disability?
Elizabeth Richter: I lived in fear during the entire time. Definitely. The Guardian Ad Litem in my case was actively campaigning against me and she made some of the most viciously discriminatory comments I’ve ever heard about me. So I faced very powerful people who were doing everything possible to deny me the right to be a mother to my children.
Divorce Saloon: And let me ask you this question, how are your children doing today? Did they turn out alright? Have they successfully completed their childhood with you as their custodial parent?
Elizabeth Richter: Oh, yes, they have done really well. They are healthy and thriving—all in college or college bound. One psychologist who observed me with my children commented on how I placed myself directly in front of the conflict and acted as a barrier to protect my children, and I was very successful in doing so.
Divorce Saloon: And what about you Elizabeth? Are you doing alright yourself? Where are you now in your own personal journey? What does your story look and sound like today after such a harrowing experience?
Elizabeth Richter: There is no doubt that I was damaged financially in major ways from which I will very likely never recover. As women, we all have this fear of ending up as bag ladies on the street. It is possible I may join their number. You can never tell. However, I will say that unexpectedly, I have ended up fulfilling my dreams of becoming a writer as a direct result of going through this process. I now have five books published, and I have more on the way. I don’t think I ever would have had the courage or the opportunity to do this had I not undergone this devastating divorce process. So, talking about a silver lining, that has been my silver lining. I have also become part of a national movement for women’s empowerment and I’ve met so many talented and exceptional women leaders. I’m very grateful and appreciative of that opportunity, so again, there has been a lot of good coming out of the bad.
Divorce Saloon: Thank you so much Elizabeth for joining us today and for shedding so much light on these issues. The world needs more people like you who do not give up and who stand up for and fight for their rights and the rights of others, and who are willing to push for change and challenge the status quo. Divorce in Connecticut is a much less daunting process just because of you and your experience and your courage.
Elizabeth Richter: Thank you so much. It has been a pleasure!
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