A Bible verse about the proper role of wives in Christian homes turned into a question about the proper role of a judge in a recent Stearns County divorce case.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently scrutinized Stearns District Judge Mary Mahler for injecting her beliefs about Christian teachings on marriage into the divorce of Sarah and Adam Peterson.
Sarah Peterson testified in a 2011 child custody hearing she wanted to distance her kids from the Baptist belief of her husband that wives must submit to what their husbands say. When Peterson struggled to cite the Bible passage about the belief, Mahler recalled disapproving of a similar statement in her own wedding that “wives obey your husbands.”
“But I don’t profess to read the Bible often enough to know where it is,” the judge said. “And after I heard it once, I dismissed it.”
On the Petersons’ disagreement about children having cellphones, Mahler said in the hearing that her 12-year-old daughter had a cellphone and implied that this was normal.
Mahler gave primary custody of the three kids to the wife. The husband appealed for several reasons, including the judge’s statements.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court on March 25 upheld Mahler’s custody ruling and found that her judgment wasn’t distorted by the opinions she expressed. Her statements nonetheless received considerable focus in the 30-page opinion and a dissent from Judge Kevin Ross.
“The concern is not that the court announced that the passage is in the Bible,” Ross wrote. “It is that, knowing that the doctrine had taken a lead role in the custody trial, the judge revealed her bias by volunteering that in her own marriage she had ‘dismissed’ the doctrine. It would be less troubling if the district court’s consequent decisions were not so intertwined with the religious view.”
Ross added, “We cannot overlook revealed judicial bias simply because it reflects a popular view.”
Mahler, appointed to the bench in 2010 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was not at the Stearns County Courthouse Thursday afternoon to return a call from the Star Tribune.
Twin Cities family attorney Christine Callahan blogged about the case. She said the appeal on the issue of the judge’s statements was weakened by the fact that the husband’s attorney didn’t object during the hearing.
“Of course, judges have their own opinions on parenting and their own biases,” Callahan said, “but ... we also rely on them to set aside their own biases when they are making decisions in court.”