Do Chancery Judges Have a Sixth Sense?

Before getting into the nitty-gritty details of my experiences with Mississippi Chancellors, I must say that we have a unique system to determine divorce and custody matters in our state.  Only 5 states in the U.S. have chancery court systems. They are based on English common-law and principles of equity (fairness). Without a doubt, the big difference between chancery and other courts is that a chancellor is not only the final interpreter of law on point, but also the ultimate fact-finder.  This requires playing somewhat of a “dual role” in making determinations that affect not only a divorcing couple, but their children and extended families. So, after 1,300+ domestic cases, do I believe that chancellors have a heightened ability to sense what is not directly in front of them? Yes, and it is largely because they have significant experience in detecting the motivations of those who appear in their courtrooms.  

When in court, attorneys are commonly making points based upon evidence that can be seen and heard.  Most of the proof that we present on a daily basis consists of not only the testimony of witnesses, but video, photographs, documents, and audio recording.  While these are what I would call “empirical” evidence, they are not the only consideration for a fact finder. For instance, let us take a brief look at criminal jury trials.  They are a contrast to chancery proceedings in many ways. The judge has a singular role: interpreter of law. The jury has one role as well: find the facts. That fact-finding is not exactly an exact science.  It is highly nuanced…subjective as all get-out. Reasonable minds can disagree and often do. After hearing testimony and seeing all of the evidence, we can and will come to different, often ant-opposite of conclusions.  That is simple human nature.

Chancellors are the equivalent of both the judge and jury.  Not only do they interpret law, they are the sole fact-finder in divorce and custody actions.  They have to rely on their God-given instincts in close cases. Having seen the inner-workings of the chancery system in Mississippi, I can without question say that chancery judges tend to have a heightened intuition.  It is necessary when determining who is truthful and who is not. That gut instinct decides the outcome of so many close cases. Most of them are close, or they tend to settle prior to trial. Think of all the times you likely disagreed with a jury.  Without pointing to any specific cases, you can surely name a few of your own.

Most divorces and child custody matters are close calls.  Many lack any concrete proof at all. There are almost never any smoking guns or red hands to be caught.  The proof is almost always what I would call luke-warm…even circumstantial. The best approach in any chancery court is to build credibility by telling the truth.  Consistency goes a long way, as it should. Chancellors are pretty good human lie detectors.  

My advice to anyone going through a difficult custody case, divorce, or visitation issue is to be cool-headed and calm.  Be consistent and voice your concern for your children. Do not worry about shaming your spouse, your ex. It will not build credibility with the judge.  Your testimony will be weaker than it could have been when the focus is taken off of your kids. It is always better not to voice the raw emotion that a breakup causes.  The children are what matters now, and the judge could care less how much you may dislike your ex. They hear all too much of it on a daily basis. It gets tiresome, and quickly.

If you end up in court over a disagreement about your kids, your finances, do yourself a favor and relax.  Chancery judges love nothing more than a reasonable, calm litigant who is able to have a laser focus on what matters and ignore what does not.  Kids need structure and stability to thrive. They need a routine that is predictable and not jolted by emotion. If you are able to tap into this thinking, you just increased your odds of obtaining a positive outcome in a tough life moment.

Matthew Poole is a Single Father and Jackson Mississippi Family Lawyer, Recipient of the National Family Lawyer Association Top 10 Award in 2015 and 2018 and Finalist of the Steen Reynolds and Dalehite Trial Competition.  He was admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 2004.

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