The public debate over two dueling alimony reform bills has called into question whether Sen. Cynthia Creem has a conflict of interest.
Massachusettsâ€™ current alimony law does not empower judges to cap the duration of an alimony award, enabling post-divorce settlements that can last a lifetime. The current law has drawn fire from alimony payors who say theyâ€™ve been forced for years to pay large percentages of their incomes, occasionally forcing them into bankruptcy.
A grass roots effort by citizens to modernize Massachusetts’ outdated alimony laws, headed by Massachusetts Alimony Reform, has been having success promoting H1785. This bill would bring Massachusetts in line with most states by setting alimony guidelines – similar to what we now have for child support. Among otherÂ things H1785 would capÂ all alimony payments at 12 years, would ensure an alimony payor the right to retire, and would protect 2nd wives from paying alimony to a payor’s first spouse.
One of main benefits of H1785 is that it would greatly reduce litigation. The current vague alimony statuteÂ leaves judges with wide discretion, meaning that alimony actions can be very expensive. There is a lot for lawyers to argue about. And the fact that alimony in Massachusetts is for life, means that families must relitigate alimony for the rest of their lives. Currently 30% of the caseload in family court is alimony actions.
Proponents of H1785 have made great progress, garnering much favorable media attention, and getting wide support in the legislature. H1785 has over 70 co-sponsors, and public hearings on H1785 in September were packed to overflowing.
The potential ending of this money machine for Massachusetts lawyers left them in a bit of a panic. Lucky for them, former legal lobbyist and practicing divorce lawyer Cynthia Creem is the chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee and has the ability to block H1785.
Creem sponsored S1616 on behalf of the Boston Bar Association. This bill would modify the current law by adding just the words “and duration.” It would leave a law without guidelines and preserve the lawyers sauce mill. At the public hearing on S1616, not one regular citizen testified in support – but representatives of the lawyer’s lobbies were there in force.
But now some are questioning whether Cynthia Stone Creem has a conflict of interest problem. You see, Creem is a prominent divorce lawyer at the firm of Stone, Stone & Creem – a firm that profits handsomely from the current broken alimony law.
â€œWhen someone proposes to add another subject â€” duration â€” to the alimony statute without any guidance or structure at all concerning itâ€™s application … this would appear to stimulate more litigation, not put an end to it,â€ said Tim Taylor, a sole practitioner in Lincoln, who wrote House bill 1785.
The issue has been referred to the Senate’s Ethics Committee, but given the narrow wording of conflict of interest laws, there is little they can do about it.
â€œThe conflict of interest law doesnâ€™t apply here because the conflict is speculative,â€ said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Boston-basedÂ Common Cause Massachusetts, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizensâ€™ lobbying group that promotes accountable government.
â€œThe impact is diffused and general in nature. It would need to be a more substantial and closer connection between the legislation and the individual involved,â€ Wilmot said.
So while her participation in blocking H1785 certainly looks self serving – it is unfortunately not yet illegal.
Sustained public pressure on Alimony Reform has forced the Judiciary committee to convene a task force to study alimony reform – but since the legislature has exempted itself from the Massachusetts Open Meeting law – the task force meetings are held behind closed doors. And the task force is composed mostly of lawyer’s lobbyists. Of the 9 members, 4 are representatives from the variousÂ lobbies ( Mass Bar, Boston Bar, Women’s Bar and the Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys ). Only one member of the task force, Steve Hitner, is an activist for H1785.
No one knows what kind of recommendation will come out of the task force. If a recommendation comes out of the task force without specific guidelines – it won’t be for the benefit of citizens who pay the lawyers or the state whose courts are flooded with alimony cases – but for the benefit of divorce lawyers.
And even if a recommendation comes out with guidelines – it’s still possible for Creem to torpedo it.