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*** Child Support Law Overthrown

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    J.A.I.L. News Journal Los Angeles - September 27, 2000 ____________________________________________________ Listen to HotSeat4Judges daily on Internet Radio
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 27, 2000

      J.A.I.L. News Journal
      Los Angeles - September 27, 2000
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      U.S. child support law
      gets tossed out

      Tuesday, September 26, 2000

      By Ed White
      The Grand Rapids Press

      A federal appeals court, ruling in a local case, said the U.S. government has no constitutional authority to pursue criminal charges against parents who owe child support but live in another state.

      The decision means that another tool to collect child support is no longer available in Michigan and three other states covered by opinions of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

      Authorities emphasized, however, that the decision does not erase anyone's debt. It simply pushes the federal government to the sideline.

      The court Monday threw out a federal law that said parents who owe more than $5,000 for a child in another state can be prosecuted in federal court, sent to prison and ordered to make the overdue payments. The government could step in even if there is no evidence that a parent fled to avoid an obligation.

      "It's been an effective way to put the thumb on parents who owe money," said Joan Meyer, the chief assistant U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids. "It sends a message to the community: Failing to pay for your child will not be tolerated."

      Congress justified the law by pointing to its constitutional authority to regulate commerce between the states. The appeals court, however, said there is no valid connection between the "Commerce Clause," as it is known, and state-ordered child support.

      Quoting Thomas Jefferson and other founders of this country, the court said the law "disrupts the federal balance that the Framers envisioned and that we are obliged to enforce."

      "This ruling does not prevent Congress from assisting the states in obtaining interstate enforcement of (court orders). ... But Congress may not, under the guise of the commerce power, criminalize the failure to obey a state court order when the state itself has declined to do so," the three-judge panel said.

      The opinion is tied to a Kent County child-support case that was prosecuted in federal court in Grand Rapids.

      Timothy Faasse, 35, has been living in California, while Sandra Bowman, 36, and their 9-year-old daughter live in the Grand Rapids area. His support payments "were erratic" -- less than $10,000 from 1994 through 1998, the court noted.

      Faasse pleaded guilty to violating the federal Child Support and Recovery Act. In 1998, U.S. Magistrate Joseph Scoville sentenced him to six months in prison and ordered him to pay $28,438 in overdue aid.

      Faasse's lawyer appealed to U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell, arguing that the law exceeded Congress' authority. Bell upheld the decision, so Chris Yates next took the case to the appeals court in Cincinnati and won.

      He said he has been concerned about Congress encroaching on areas of law traditionally reserved for the states.

      "One area that is exclusively the state's prerogative is family law," Yates, the chief public defender, said. "We don't get federal courts involved in divorce and child-custody matters, and by the same token the federal courts shouldn't be involved in child support, either."

      Despite the ruling, Faasse still is on the hook for overdue child support. In fact, he has been ordered to appear in Kent County court on Oct. 20 to explain why he is more than $40,000 behind in payments to Bowman and the girl.

      Bowman declined to comment on the ruling but said Congress was standing up for the "rights of those who don't have a voice" when it passed the 1994 law.

      Meyer said it is likely the U.S. Justice Department will ask the full appeals court to take another look at the case. Ten other appeals courts around the country have found the law to be constitutional.

      The U.S. Attorney's Office for Michigan's Western District has successfully handled a dozen child-support cases worth $477,610, Meyer said.

      Obviously, not every case is ripe for the federal government. Local authorities turn to the Justice Department when a parent owes a large amount of money, is living out of state and other collection efforts have failed.

      "It's a limited tool but a good tool under the circumstances," said William Camden, who runs Kent County's Friend of the Court, the agency that collects child support and enforces court orders.

      "They get the more egregious cases," he said of the Justice Department. "There's clout. Any time you have a federal marshal and the U.S. courts involved, you ratchet things up some."

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