SJC rejects challenge to child support rules filed by fathers group

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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The Supreme Judicial Court yesterday unanimously upheld state child support guidelines adopted in 2009, rejecting a legal challenge from a fathers’ rights group that asserted the rules were enacted unlawfully and may cause undue harm to parents making payments.

The fathers’ group was arguing against the guidelines being enacted by a member of the judiciary, Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for judicial administration and management.

In court papers, the Boston-based Fathers and Families Inc. asked the SJC to address the policy question its lawsuit raised: that the Legislature, not the judiciary, should set guidelines for child support, which one parent pays to another after a divorce to help defray the costs of raising their children.

“The New Guidelines were approved by an unconstitutional and illegal process, through formulation by a secret judicial committee, and by unilateral imposition’’ by Mulligan, a lawyer for the group wrote in a brief.

Assistant Attorney General Timothy J. Casey, arguing on behalf of Mulligan and the state court system, said in a filing that the Legislature explicitly gave the top administrative judge the power to adopt child support guidelines in 1986.

Casey also said the guidelines are aimed at requiring parents, not taxpayers, to support their children. He also argued that the guidelines do not violate due process, because parents can be heard in court before their payment orders are set or changed, among many other arguments for upholding the guidelines.

The SJC refused to address the issue on a statewide basis. Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly wrote in the court’s opinion that the fathers’ rights group can make such constitutional arguments when their cases are heard before the Probate and Family Court, other trial courts, or in further appellate remedies.

She added that the legal tactic employed by the group cannot be used against the judiciary.

“We conclude that the declaratory judgment statute . . . prohibits any action for declaratory relief against the judicial department,’’ Duffly wrote.

A lawyer for the organization, Gregory A. Hession of Springfield, did not immediately return voice and e-mail messages seeking comment yesterday.

Under the new guidelines, parents can be forced to pay excessive support for the children from the first marriage, while children of a subsequent marriage are left without basic needs because of a shortage of money, Fathers and Families argued.

The group also said that a noncustodial parent can be forced to make weekly payments of up to $915, even though the state contributes $116 per week.

And, the group said, divorced parents’ payments under an alimony order are tax deductible in the guidelines, a benefit that is not available to parents who never married.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office referred a request for comment to the judiciary. A spokeswoman for the SJC declined to comment beyond Duffly’s decision, citing official protocol.

Travis Andersen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.