The people are ahead of the courts and the courts are ahead of the laws. That's the way Suzanne Marelius sees what is happening with families and public policy.
Marelius spoke at Utah Valley State College on Wednesday afternoon, as part of a three-day seminar called "Women in a World of Change: Gender Issues and Public Policy."Marelius has practiced family law in Utah for 13 years. "We are in the midst of profound social change," she told her audience. The new models for families are being defined by the families themselves.
Marelius noted that more women have children alone, more grandparents seek custody, more men fight for and get custody and more divorcing couples appear in divorce court with their joint custody agreement already worked out.
Meanwhile, in the courts themselves, mediation is often mandatory for those involved in custody and visitation battles. There are tables, now, to show who should pay what amount of child support - which simplifies the divorce and makes prolonged battles less profitable.
While divorce and remarriage are responsible for some of the change, judges are also seeing more gay and lesbian couples and more polygamous families.
A few years ago Marelius was an attorney for a woman who wanted to be able to visit the child she'd helped to raise - even though she was no longer living with the child's biological mother. She got those visitation rights.
Marelius also talked about a case that went to the Utah Supreme Court, a case in which a dying widow had filed legal papers asking that her six children be adopted by a polygamous couple. A Washington County court said the parents were breaking the law (by being polygamists) and were therefore not fit to adopt. But the Supreme Court said the polygamist couple deserved a hearing at least, that being polygamists did not necessarily mean they were unfit parents.
Recently she was asked to represent three people who want to legally adopt a baby. The baby's young father is, apparently, not interested. The three people who want to share equally in the baby's life are its young mother, its grandmother and its grandmother's friend - who is merely a friend, not involved in a sexual relationship with the grandmother or the mother.
People aren't waiting for the laws to allow them to change their lives, Marelius said. "People who want to make a commitment are doing it."
It seems to Marelius that the formal statutes come as an afterthought, a codification of the law being developed by judges every day, in courtrooms where real people bring their real lives.