Wild Flowers in the Swamp: Local Rules and Family Law

57 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2017 Last revised: 3 Apr 2018

See all articles by Sean H. Williams

Sean H. Williams

University of Texas School of Law

Date Written: April 19, 2017


Family law reform is stuck in a rut. Reformers have criticized family law’s open-ended standards for decades and have uniformly sought to make those standards more rule-like by imposing top-down rules to cabin trial court judges’ discretion. That reform strategy failed 35 years ago, it failed 25 years ago, it failed 15 years ago, and it will fail today. This Article explores a bottom-up solution. Just as local judges routinely adopt local procedural rules, they should also be empowered to adopt substantive rules of thumb to guide their individual discretion in family law matters. This reform can accomplish what reformers have long failed to achieve: to cabin the discretion of individual judges and to bolster the democratic legitimacy of their decisions. Collective rules of thumb also create two novel dialogic benefits. They provide the first clear opportunity for local citizens to communicate to local judges about the content of local values. This is especially important when mostly heterosexual, white, wealthy judges are increasingly out of touch with minority family forms. In addition to giving a voice to local citizens, collective rules of thumb provide judges with a powerful new signaling device to communicate with appellate courts and legislatures. Whatever judges may say, they speak with much more force when they speak as a group. The vision of local power that this Article defends has implications that extend far beyond family law as well. Most notably, its novel focus on rules of thumb forces revisions to existing accounts of “rules against rulification,” and its account of citizen–judge dialogue offers insights into recent theoretical work on the proper scope of local judicial power.

Keywords: Divorce, Family law, Local Rules, Rulification

JEL Classification: K36

Suggested Citation

Williams, Sean H., Wild Flowers in the Swamp: Local Rules and Family Law (April 19, 2017). 65 Drake Law Review 781 (2017), U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 670, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2955202 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2955202

Sean H. Williams (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States

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