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Family law judge cuts through clashes with wisdom that comes from experience

Posted Monday, Jul. 25, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

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At 9 a.m. on a Monday in late June, the downtown courtroom is saturated with human misery -- anger, frustration, sadness and fear, the cocktail of emotions unique to broken marriages and shattered domestic dreams.

Estranged husbands in contested divorces sit waiting in one part of the courtroom with their lawyers, estranged wives and their attorneys in another. For most couples, the family rupture has been recent and emotions are plainly raw.

In court they will argue about who will live where, who pays what to whom, who gets the dog or the cat or the embroidered towels. Most importantly, the parties will fight about who gets the children, under what circumstances and for how long.

In her chambers, family court Associate Judge Lisa Beebe zips a black robe over her dress and starts toward the door. It is her job, and that of five other associate judges in Tarrant County's family law system, to set out the rules of separation that will prevail until a district judge issues a final divorce decree.

Beebe pauses before a window to check her frosted and abundant hair. A small pink pig is pinned to her shoulder. The judge utters her daily, pre-hearing mantra.

"Patience," she says to the reflected image in the window. "Compassion. And don't say f---."

Thus begins the latest episode of a long-running judicial tragicomedy, one that has made Beebe, 53, both a minor celebrity and a polarizing figure in Fort Worth legal circles.

In her court, counsel tables and the witness stand are typically ignored. Litigants and their lawyers are beckoned instead to stand in front of the bench, where it is the judge who asks most of the questions, often indelicately. That certain expletive, part of her pre-court mantra, might be the only word she will not say in court.

A beleaguered father is caught in the middle of a domestic war between his young daughter and his new wife.

"What does it feel like to live with two women who don't like each other?" Beebe asks him. "I mean, seriously."

"It's not pleasant all the time," the man says, wearily.

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Beebe asks.

A young woman seeks to terminate the parental rights of the father of her child, because the father is about to be deported to Mexico.

"You brought a child into this world with a man who is not a U.S. citizen," Beebe says. "What were you thinking, exactly?"

"He drinks all the time," the mother says.

"Did he drink before you got pregnant?"

"Yes."

"So you picked a man who drinks too much and is not a citizen to be the father of this child," Beebe says. "Did I get that right? And now you want the sperm donor to go away."

Another young woman begins to argue with her in-laws, but not for long. Beebe leans and bellows, snapping her courtroom to silence.

"This is not an opportunity for a bunch of people to yell at each other," the judge says at the top of her voice, creating a courtroom echo. "I ask the questions, you answer them. Is that clear?"

Otherwise, Beebe's trademark line is "when pink pigs fly down Main Street." (Hence the brooch on her chest, and the assorted flying pigs, most of them gifts, that decorate her chambers and her home in Keller.)

She makes no secret that she has been married and divorced three times herself (once to a former Star-Telegram reporter).

"I've walked in those moccasins," she often tells the estranged.

In the Family Law Center, lawyers and courthouse workers with time on their hands gravitate to Beebe's court, curious about what she will say or do next. They are likely to hear something to make the most veteran attorney wince.

"She's a character, and like all characters, they draw attention, good or bad, I guess," says Beth Poulos, another associate judge who has known Beebe for years. "I love Lisa. Many people do. But she draws fire. She's the lightning rod up here."

Where Beebe is concerned, there does not seem to be much middle ground. She gets hammered on a website that solicits anonymous judicial assessments, and in her desk she keeps a stack of anonymous hate mail. Beebe has consistently scored low in lawyer polls conducted by the Tarrant County Bar Association. But of 10 lawyers chosen at random from her docket and interviewed for this story, each praised the judge, often effusively.

Lawyers and judges say that criticisms of Beebe invariably involve her flamboyant style, not her rulings. And Beebe's famous indelicacy, they say, might be just what some of the suffering litigants in her court need most.

"People coming before the bench are predisposed to being argumentative and predisposed to using children as pawns," said veteran Fort Worth lawyer Deforrest Tiffany. "In that court and the other [family law] courts, the whole idea of using children to gain advantage is frowned upon. When the judge exposes it, people don't like it."

Beebe also has a knack for cutting through domestic noise to address what really is at issue in divorce cases, other lawyers said. That efficiency is crucial in Tarrant County's overburdened family law system, where about 20,000 cases are pending at any one time.

"I know she'll get it done fast, and I know her ruling will be fair," said Heather King, former president of the Tarrant County Bar Association.

Beebe, the senior associate judge in the county's family law system, has been on the bench for 17 years. She says she tried to tone it down after early batterings in bar polls, but that didn't seem to help her numbers. So she decided to do what comes naturally: speak her unfettered mind from the bench. In her lectures, she says, she tries to give litigants the benefit of lessons learned from her own tragic life experiences.

On a recent afternoon, she sits in her chambers, also decorated with photographs of her two daughters. The mouse pad by her computer was a gift from a bailiff and court official.

"You say I'm a bitch like it's a bad thing," the pad reads.

Beebe laughs.

"Nobody is going to say, 'Gee, that Judge Beebe, that was sure a pleasant experience,'" she said. "But I am who I am. I know in my heart of hearts that these people need somebody in a big black robe to tell them the way it is. I think providing them with a dose of reality is a whole lot better than singing Kumbaya with them. I'm sorry. They've got friends. They've got family members. They've got all those other people sitting around and saying: 'Oh, you poor thing. I'm so sorry you're experiencing this.'

"Everything is total upset, total chaos, total ickiness," Beebe says of her litigants. "I feel that what I do is bring some order and peace to a chaotic situation that's high in emotion. I give them a road map so they can get down the road and do what's in the best interests of their children, because when you're in that kind of a mess, you can't do that. I think I'm helping people. I really think I am."

Perspective amid chaos

A version of Beebe's courtroom lecture has been delivered hundreds of times since one fateful winter night in 1997. The judicial sermon typically comes as a warring husband and wife cannot agree over who gets the sofas, the televisions, the china, even the fuzzy toilet seat covers, matching shower curtains and swizzle sticks from exotic vacations.

"Look," Beebe will tell them. "I've watched everything go up in flames. What I've learned from that experience is that this is just stuff. You want to spend your $700 an hour [in legal fees] going over the fuzzy toilet seat covers?... I'm telling you, in the grand scheme of life, it's just stuff, and you can replace it. I know because I've done it."

Just before midnight on Jan. 19, 1997, Beebe was asleep in bed in her Keller home. Her second husband was dozing on the sofa, while Beebe's two young daughters were in their beds on the other side of the house. Beebe awoke to a pounding noise, what turned out to be a neighbor frantically trying to warn the family that their home was on fire.

Beebe woke her husband, rushed to grab her children out of bed and escaped with them into the street. Seconds later, they watched the roof collapse as their residence burned to the ground.

"It was very scary," Beebe remembers. "We lost everything. I'm standing in the front yard in a T-shirt, period, and two kids, one on each hip."

The fire sent Beebe's husband spiraling into depression and substance abuse, she says. But after the initial shock wore off, Beebe realized that the tragedy had a much different effect on her.

"I looked at it as kind of a new beginning and totally changed my attitude about life," she says. "All of a sudden I realized how precious life was, how unimportant things were. That caused a real disconnect between us in our marriage and ultimately probably led to the divorce."

That breakup was finalized in June 1998. (Her second husband died in 2007.) Beebe was married again to a former Star-Telegram reporter, but that relationship quickly dissolved from the stresses of a large blended family and basic philosophical difference about life, she says.

During these difficult times in her own life, it was her job, sorting through the broken marriages of others, that provided an escape.

"It was a place to go to be away from all that drama," Beebe says. "It is a paradox, that's true, but I tell people all the time that I go to work to get away from the chaos in my own life."

And not once in her three divorces, Beebe says, has she ever set foot in a courtroom. In more than a decade as a family law attorney, as well as her 17 years on the bench, she has seen the never-ceasing procession of warring couples who turn their lives and their children over to a judge because they are in too much pain to resolve things themselves.

"I've seen what happens to their lives and to their kids, and I'm not going there," Beebe says.

In each of her divorces, "I went to [her husband] and said, 'In order for this marriage to be over, what do you want?'" Beebe says. "I listened and I said, 'OK.' There isn't any conflict or disagreement or argument that is big enough in my personal life for me to turn those decisions over to a complete stranger."

Yet the stream of misery continues through Tarrant County's family law system.

"People are in so much pain, they are in so much upset," Beebe says, "that they can't see the forest from the trees."

Tough delivery

An estranged husband and father of young children is concerned about his wife's new boyfriend, who pulled a handgun during an argument. After a court investigation, Beebe orders that until the boyfriend completes counseling, he cannot be present when the mother has her children. But that arrangement will be temporary, Beebe says.

"She's not going to leave him," Beebe tells the father. "He's going to be part of your children's lives. You're just going to have to live with that. That's why they give me this big black robe. To make these decisions."

The father's shoulders slump as he stands in front of the bench. He tells the judge of another concern: that he no longer has the money to pay a lawyer and fears he will get gouged by his estranged wife's attorney.

"I have one job and one job only, and that's to look after the best interests of your children," the judge tells him. "It's not in the best interest of the children to be in a house where there is not enough money to eat. It's my job to get you from here to there without sucking down community assets.

"You're going to be fine," Beebe tells the husband. "So is your wife. So are the children."

Money is not the issue in another recent case that involves an affluent couple now pitted against each other. They are childless, so their arguments concern who will drive the Mercedes and who gets the flat-screen TVs. Beebe orders the man to pay his wife $8,000 a month in spousal support, but, standing in front of the judge, the woman begins to weep.

"What's going on?" Beebe asks. "You don't cry over TVs. There has to be something else."

"I've been verbally and emotionally abused all I can take," the woman says. "I just want to get out and set up a simple apartment as fast as I can."

"Looking at the demeanor of the two of you, it's clear to me that none of this is about stuff," the judge says. "It's about sadness, anger, frustration, fear, etcetera, etcetera and etcetera."

And so it goes. Misery upon misery, day after day. In no other court does such a cross section of society convene, people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds who bear witness to the fact that nothing inoculates against failed relationships and broken hearts. In criminal courts, the legal axiom goes, bad people are on their best behavior. In family court, good people are on their worst, as Beebe and other associate judges perform what amounts to judicial triage.

"It's the most difficult legal job I've ever seen," lawyer Brooks Harrington said. Harrington, a former federal prosecutor and plaintiff's lawyer, for the past five years has represented indigent clients in family court. "I've been a lawyer for 35 years, and I've never seen the kind of suffering, tragedy and human errors like you see every single day in that courthouse.

"I don't know how you see case after case, five days a week, and not get a really negative view of humanity, not stop caring," Harrington said. "But Lisa is not that way. I think the main reason is that she just likes people, she is interested in people, and she has a tremendous sense of humor. Her bailiff told me once that he would have retired a long time ago but it was the Judge Judy show every day."

Many who come and go in her court find Beebe less entertaining.

"I am positive that Judge Beebe is a horrible, abusive judge, but it's hard to explain objectively her misconduct," says one anonymous post on a rate-a-court website, which gave her a D-. "How do you explain her rude, crass, unfair behavior? She's the worst kind of nuts -- she acts out, but doesn't clearly break rules."

In a recent telephone interview, a reporter from another publication asked Beebe to comment on her reputation for being short-tempered and mean. She would not.

"What does he expect me to say?" Beebe says. "'Yeah, I'm a real witch, aren't I.'"

But the criticism stung, and she called a close friend for reassurance.

"I said: 'Remind me again that I'm a good judge. I'm a good woman. I'm a good mother.' And she did. She always does," Beebe said. "You don't want to see in print that you're mean and short and get in people's faces. But it's part of the job."

For all the misery she sees, and the criticism, Beebe says she enjoys her work as much today as when she started in 1994, though nothing in her upbringing suggested that she would make her living as a referee of domestic discord.

Her father was a teacher and coach in Rockford, Ill., her mother a stay-at-home mom to three kids. Her parents recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.

"No alcoholism, no drug abuse, none of that stuff," Beebe says.

She graduated from Illinois State University with degrees in political science and legal studies, then followed her first husband to West Texas, where she earned a law degree from Texas Tech.

"Law school is very difficult on marriages," she said of her first divorce.

She later practiced family law in Dallas and Fort Worth, remarried and had two daughters.

The career-changing call came from State Judge Randy Catterton in the 231st District Court. Catterton had been a family law attorney and one of Beebe's former courtroom adversaries. He asked Beebe to apply for the associate's position in his court.

Beebe initially thought he was kidding.

"I said, 'Have you seen me lately? I'm five months pregnant, and I have a 2-and-a-half-year-old at home.'" Beebe remembers. "I had never even thought about doing this before. I did it on kind of a lark."

Catterton and Beebe remain today what many describe as a formidable legal team. Because he and Beebe could potentially hear the same cases (litigants have a right to appeal Beebe's rulings to the senior judge), Catterton says he has never watched her at work, "but I've been told she's very theatrical," Catterton says, laughing.

Catterton has fielded complaints about Beebe, he says, and the two have discussed the criticisms.

"Admonish would be too strong a word," Catterton says. "She's very bright. She's very compassionate, though it doesn't always show. Her lectures can be very biting, but there is an underlying compassion about them. I think that's where she gets some of her criticism. She's telling it like it is, and they don't want to hear it, especially where kids are involved. The delivery sometimes rubs people the wrong way."

Outside the courtroom

On a Sunday in early July, Beebe's family assembles in her Keller home. Meagan, the oldest daughter, is visiting from Austin, where she will be a junior at the University of Texas.

Beebe's fiancé, Billy Martin, a home builder, is up from his place in the Hill Country. Lucy, who will be a freshman at Texas State, is about to leave for her job at Bass Hall. An easy banter fills the place. If Beebe has frequently worn the moccasins of domestic discord, today her figurative footwear seems altogether different.

"I think her job makes her more grateful for what she has," Lucy says as the family sits together in the living room. "We're happy. She's getting married to a great guy."

Martin and Beebe are planning an October wedding. It is suggested that Martin must be a confident man to be engaged to such a strong woman.

"There is the judge hat and the Lisa hat," Martin replies. "She has two very different hats. Lisa is a very loving person, very smart, very kind. Just a good, good girl."

"She's also got her mom hat," Meagan adds. "It's kind of like the judge hat, only a little more loving."

The daughters laugh. They have heard the stories about fights over swizzle sticks and toilet seat covers, but otherwise say their mother doesn't bring her work home. On the days when she does seem stressed, Meagan or Lucy will suggest the solution.

"Mom, have you gone for your run today?"

But Martin and the daughters know that there is a price for her singular style. They worry about the criticism and hate mail.

"It bothers me a lot," Martin says. "I get afraid for her safety."

Beebe shakes her head dismissively.

"The thought never crosses my mind that this person or that person is mad at me," she says. "I don't live my life like that."

Tough but fair

So the show continues. On a recent afternoon, an estranged couple are back before the judge, arguing about custody and visitation of their troubled 12-year-old son. The boy is using drugs and has impregnated a girl his age.

"How many times have you been down here?" Beebe asks the mother.

"Too many," the woman says.

She complains her son has to sleep on an air mattress when he's with his father.

"He can sleep on an air mattress. It won't kill him," Beebe says. "I make my kids sleep on an air mattress in a tent when we're on vacation, and I tell them it's fun. I've got people in here who are homeless. I've got kids going to visit their fathers in a car. I'm not going to keep a kid from visiting parents because they can't afford it."

Beebe turns her attention to the father, who refuses to take parenting classes.

"I've attended them," the judge says. "I know they helped me."

"I know how to raise my son," the man says.

"Who taught you?" Beebe says.

"My parents."

"Did your parents have a child who got into drugs and got his little girlfriend pregnant?" Beebe asks.

After the hearing, the man sits slumped on a bench outside the courtroom. He is asked his opinion of the judge.

"Oh, she's a booger bear," the man replies, chuckling wearily. "She was nice today. You get on her bad side, she'll eat you up."

His attorney is standing nearby.

"Yeah, but she chews on everybody," the attorney says. "Lisa is equal."

But was she fair?

"Yeah, she was pretty much telling the truth," the man said. "I learned today that maybe I need to have some counseling, you know."

Then he paused.

"Man," he said. "I'm going to go have a drink."

When told later about his comments, Beebe laughs. She's heard so much worse. But she is what she is.

"This is the deal," she says. "It's 3 in the morning, and I wake up and I say to myself, 'Oh, Lisa, you could have been nicer to that woman.' But I know I did the best I could that day.... You get to the point where you just do it your own way. I no longer worry about whether people like me or whether the perception is that I'm mean. I do the best job I can."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

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