CHAPTER 16 - PRETRIAL CONFERNCE

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       The pretrial conference, a two-hour session before General Master Dixon, was held in late April, 1984.  Its purpose was to clarify the issues and list all potential parties to testify.  No witnesses, however, were permitted to appear that day.

       Schmidt was out of the country then so his assistant, Tom Branigan was left to carry the ball for Maria.  In my corner were Bennett, another Jewish attorney (Steve Busker) and myself.  Busker was an associate of Bennett, but he had tagged along purely out of interest in the case, and not for any compensation.  I was listed as a co-counselor on the case, but I was glad to have the extra help present.

       Even before we could get into the meat of the session, Branigan opened up with a total lie.  He claimed Bennett had not delivered any pretrial catalog to Schmidt’s office. (The pretrial catalog lists all major evidence and witnesses to be presented.)  Bennett had in fact not only done so, but he had even carried it there personally.  The two attorneys traded accusations for a while.  Finally Lapidus handed Branigan another copy of the catalog.  Branigan then apologized to the Court because his side had yet to prepare its own catalog.

       Dixon wanted to know exactly what each side sought.  Bennett then realized that he needed to confer with me.  I wanted full custody, but under the new Uniform Joint Custody Act of Florida, that was nearly impossible to procure.  You practically had to prove that the mother was a diseased prostitute with homicidal tendencies to completely remove a child from her care. “Maria has problems,” I told Bennett, “but nothing like that.  By the court’s standards, I guess I’ve got to settle for primary residency.”

       Maria was also compelled to ask for nothing more than continued joint custody, though she, of course, sought to retain primary residency herself.  Each side asked the other to pay for the legal costs of both.  Both parties stated a willingness to give the other side liberal visitation.

       When Dixon heard that both petitioners were prepared to settle for some form of joint custody, he asked Maria and I to admit that each other was fit.  Maria was willing to concede the point, but I wasn’t.

       “If I thought she was fit, Your Honor, I wouldn’t have filed for custody,” I said.

       “If you don’t think she’s fit, then you must ask for full custody,” the general master responded. “But, I must warn you that it would be very hard indeed for you to win it no matter what you say in court.”

       “Then,” I said, “I’ll admit that Mrs. Estavan is fit for visitation purposes in a joint-custody arrangement, but she isn’t fit for primary residency.”

       Dixon accepted the answer. Maria looked at me with disgust.  I glanced back at her and tried to remember what it had been like when I once loved her.  That seemed like a million years ago.  The person who sat across from me now was no more than a stranger and an enemy.  I couldn’t for all the world believe that I could have ever cared for her.

       “Mr. Lapidus, who will your witnesses be?” Dixon asked.

       We will have a former president of Mr. Roffman’s synagogue, the current vice president and the acting rabbi, all of whom are very familiar with both father and son. Mr. Roffman’s boss, Mr. Sid Clark, will be present, as well as the mohel who circumcised Bobby seven years ago, witnesses to the circumcision, Bobby’s Sunday school teacher, Archbishop McCarthy, and Bobby, himself,” Bennett stated.

       “We all know what Bobby’s going to say,” the general master declared.  From the way the remark was made, it was apparent that he had either read the Herald article on Bobby, had spoken to Mrs. Mills, or both.

       “And what will you attempt to prove at the trial?” Dixon asked.

       “We contend that the mother agreed to raise the child in question in the Jewish religion and that, to the detriment of the child who has developed a strong Jewish identity, the mother has gone back on that pledge by recently having Bobby baptized. Neither the child, nor the father who had joint custody, approved of the baptism, which was an act so outrageous as to merit a change in custody or, at a minimum, a change in primary residency.  We will also prove that Mrs. Estavan is not herself a practicing Catholic,” Bennett stated.

       “How will you do that?” Dixon asked.

       “By showing that her new marriage was conducted not by a Catholic priest, but by a justice of the peace,” Bennett answered.

       The general master then questioned Branigan about Maria’s witnesses.  None were listed save Maria herself and her husband.

       Branigan next proceeded to define the issues as his client saw them. “Mr. Roffman has systematically alienated the affections of the child from his mother,” the attorney asserted, then added that, “He has secretly enrolled the boy in Hebrew school and used religion to drive a wedge between mother and son.”

       Dixon wanted to know if any psychological evaluations had been done.  Branigan was coy about the matter.  He knew Schmidt had sent Maria to their own doctor, and he knew that the man’s findings would support me unless sufficient new motivation could be found to help change his mind, so for now he merely chose to keep the testing a secret.

       I had strong feelings about the idea. “Your Honor," I said, “The last custody battle I fought with that lady involved expensive Court-ordered evaluations.  They supported me, cost me a fortune, but Judge Hickey refused to abide by the recommendation given, namely that I be awarded custody.  The psychologist recommended that my ex-wife should participate in psychotherapy if Bobby remained in her care, and Hickey didn’t order that either.  Dr. Elenewski predicted that we’d be back, and here we are.  If his opinion were heeded the first time, none of us would have to go through the current ordeal.  I haven’t changed very much since the previous testing was done, nor has Mrs. Estavan.  Bobby has matured a good bit, but as you apparently are aware, he still wants to live with me.  I think more evaluations would only be a waste of money.”

       Dixon asked Branigan how Maria felt about the issue.  After a brief conference, the attorney announced, “My client agrees to have the child evaluated only if Mr. Roffman will pay for it.”

       Bennett argued that the fee should be divided.  He was concerned that the other side would have an easier time challenging results favoring me if it could claim I had bought the report.  Branigan refused to budge on the issue, knowing that it would make his doctor’s report look better if he could argue that Maria was just as entitled to pay for findings as I was.  When Bennett heard the name of the psychologist, a Dr. Goldberg, he decided that it might not be such a bad idea to have an expert witness to call.

       Branigan went on to complain about my plan to subpoena the Archbishop, claiming such harassment was the reason that Maria hadn’t been married in the Church. Maria’s attorney also wanted time for pretrial depositions of all my witnesses.

       Dixon checked his calendar, and found that, due to his upcoming vacation, there were no full-day openings for another two months.  The trial was set for June 29, 1984.  In the interim, I managed to get better visitation.

        It was a Wednesday afternoon, so I drove over to pick up my son when the hearing broke up.  Bobby was full of hope of a quick resolution to his problem.  I hated to let him down, so I took the boy to the planetarium to help get his mind off the new wait.  He cuddled up to me in the car and reassured me that he was willing to hold out for the duration.  “I know,” he said, “that one day when you come to pick me up, it will be for good.”

       Bobby told me about Maria’s psychologist, Dr. Gray, in the car that day, but when I later called, the doctor refused to speak with me.

 

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