The Palladium - Times, Wednesday. May 5, 1999 PAGE 7A

Man frustrated by system has the wrong approach

Don Harting


I sympathize with John Murtari, even admire him, but I don't agree with him. Murtari is the father who got himself thrown in Syracuse jail in February to protest the lack of a jury trial in a court decision awarding primary custody or his 6-year-old son, Dominic, to Murtari's ex-wife.

 I met Murtari in early April. He was stating at his mother's home in Lyons, not far from Geneva. The 42-year-old businessman came across as pleasant and courteous He told me his father was 62 when he was born, an only son, like Dom. Murtari's divorce was finalized in 1997, and Dom lives with his mother in California for all but six weeks of the year. Murtari's frustration at not being able to spend more time with Dom was visible on his face as we talked. He told me the custody order was "unacceptable."

 I admire Murtari's devotion to his son. I also admire his public relations savvy. His civil disobedience gambit earned him coverage by newspapers and two TV stations. I also admire how Murtari is expressing this legitimate feelings of anger peacefully by trying to start a mass movement on the Internet in support of jury trials in child custody cases.

But I think he's got the wrong idea. As a taxpayer, I don't relish the idea of impaneling a jury every time a husband and wife get to quarreling about the kids. We're already paying judges hefty salaries to make these decisions. Jury trials are expensive and time-consuming. Why impose extra costs? They're bound only to make what Murtari calls "the monstrous system" even more so. 

A better solution would be to take those same public dollars and invest them into lowering the divorce rate so fewer marriages fail in the first place.

For example, New York lawmakers could use the money to imitate Wisconsin, where the state assembly recently paid the airfare for Michael and Harriet McManus of Bethesda, Md., to come speak about their popular "Marriage Savers" ministry. Thanks to reforms advocated by the McManuses, the divorce rate is actually falling in several cities around the country.

Or our governor could use the money to imitate Oklahoma, where Governor Frank Keating and his wife Cathy recently convened their first "marriage summit," attended by more than 200 people. The Keatings are concerned by statistics showing Oklahoma has the second-highest divorce rate in America. They've pledged to lower that rate by one-third by 2010.

 It might not even be necessary to spend money. Judge James Sheridan of Adrian, Mich. got so tired of seeing divorces he is now authorizing all officials performing civil weddings in his judicial district to require couples to obtain premarital counseling first. That reform didn't take lengthy hearings or expensive lobbying. Judge Sheridan just gave the order.

 I haven't spoken with Dom Murtari, so I don't know for sure what he wants. But I do identify with him, because my parents split up when I was a child. I suspect what would make him happiest is for his parents to be reunited and find some way to get along. If that's not possible, the next best thing might be to prevent divorces in other families so fewer children are hurt the way Dom is being hurt.

 Isn't that reason enough for us to work together to save marriages in our state?

Don Hurting is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists working from his home near Syracuse.