Court paints rosy
picture of festering case
If there's one institution Hawaii residents should be able to rely on for accurate information, it is the courts.
When a court puts its imprimatur on something, you should be able to take that information to the bank.
You should be able to count on the information being accurate and factual and not a gross distortion of reality.
Which is why the state Family Court's action in a contentious child custody case involving a wealthy Damon Estate trustee and his ex-wife is so baffling and outrageous.
At the court's behest, a letter in July was sent to listed witnesses in the case, informing them that the ex-spouses, David Haig and Myrna Murdoch, had resolved their differences regarding their 11-year-old daughter and had reached an agreement that both parents believed was fair, reasonable and, most importantly, in the girl's best interest.
The letter received by Murdoch's witnesses, including some of her closest friends, was signed by a court officer on her behalf.
It clearly gave the impression that everything was settled, that all was now rosy in what had been a legal battle so bitter and nasty it stretched over eight years, an extraordinary length for a custody case.
"Thank you for all your support," the letter stated. "I believe the agreement that David and I have reached will enable (our daughter) to grow, develop and succeed to her full potential as she matures into womanhood."
There was one major problem with the letter, however. It was dead wrong. It completely glossed over what was still a full-blown dispute that was playing out in several courts, including the state's highest.
When Family Court Judge Allene Suemori approved the settlement agreement and the accompanying witness letter in March and again when she authorized the letter's dissemination in late July, the court knew that Murdoch had not signed off on the settlement. Worse, Suemori knew that Murdoch was claiming the document didn't accurately reflect what she had agreed to orally during court-monitored settlement talks in October 2002.
In fact, four months before the witness letters were even sent out, Murdoch had filed an appeal with the Hawaii Supreme Court contesting the very agreement that the letter claimed she believed was fair and reasonable. That April appeal is pending.
Among the points raised by her appellant attorney: that Murdoch never agreed to key provisions in the judge's "bizarre, coerced and unprecedented" order and that Suemori overstepped her jurisdiction by trying to interfere with actions in other courts, including ordering Murdoch to dismiss two pending appeals.
"This is not an institutional problem in my eyes," said Peter Esser, the attorney handling Murdoch's appeal. "This is one judge coming in and forcing down my client's throat a stipulated order she doesn't agree with."
A Judiciary spokeswoman said the court couldn't comment on the case because it is confidential. (Juvenile custody cases typically are sealed to protect the minor's interests).
Haig's attorney, Chuck Kleintop, whose office drafted the letter that eventually was approved by the court, said the letter accurately reflected that an agreement had been reached by both sides in October.
Once that oral agreement-in-principle was reached, the two sides spent the next several months arguing over what the written settlement should say. They never came to terms on that, largely because Murdoch reneged on what she previously had agreed to, according to Kleintop.
"She refused to honor her earlier agreement," he said.
"That's simply not true," countered Ed Lebb, Murdoch's attorney at the time of the settlement talks.
To resolve the dispute, the court asked each side to submit what they believed the settlement order should say, based on the October oral agreement. After considering arguments from both parties, Suemori in March selected Haig's version. Murdoch filed her appeal a few weeks later.
Even though Murdoch refused to sign the order, Suemori approved it. The letter that had been drafted by Haig's attorneys -- written as if Murdoch had authored it, including a typed "Sincerely, Myrna B. Murdoch" ending -- was sent out under terms of the court order. Suemori had directed a court officer to sign the letter on Murdoch's behalf, something permitted under court rules. The officer signed his name above Murdoch's typed name and a court stamp identifying him as a chief clerk.
Kleintop said the letter was sent after Murdoch failed to show up at a July court hearing to discuss why she hadn't complied with aspects of the court order. Murdoch told friends she didn't get proper legal notice for the hearing.
According to Kleintop, the court order noted that because witnesses in the case may have influence over the girl's life, it was important they understood her parents had reached a settlement that the pair believed to be in the child's best interest.
If only that were the case.
Murdoch declined comment, saying she feared retaliation if she spoke out. She said she was fearful even though a gag order she had been under was lifted in 2001 after a judge deemed it unconstitutional.
While Murdoch was reluctant to speak, her friends were not, especially those who received copies of the letter.
"I'm quite frankly very surprised that a letter like that was (approved) by the court," said Sharon Miyashiro, a long-time friend and former administrative director of the courts. "To sign it for Myrna, No. 1, and to attribute to her something that she clearly didn't agree to ... it just doesn't sit well."
Ruth Hada was even more critical. After receiving the letter, Hada called Murdoch to congratulate her on the settlement, only to discover the letter was wrong and sent over her friend's objections.
"I think that should be illegal," Hada said. "Who would send some kind of bogus letter like that?"
That's a fair question.
While the only child from Murdoch's and Haig's 13-year marriage would undoubtedly benefit if her parents could settle amicably, the fact remains the ex-spouses still can't see eye-to-eye on what's best for their little girl.
And no matter what any letter says, the child unfortunately will continue to be caught in the middle of the fight. Her parents even have argued over the father's legal attempt to change the girl's last name, a dispute that is before the Supreme Court.
For the Family Court to now endorse a portrayal of the case that makes everything seem harmonious and agreeable is simply unconscionable.
We expect much more from our judiciary.
See the Columnists section for some past articles.
Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
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