While Tempe attorney Barbara Ross was preparing to represent a client in a civil trial, her former husband was busy, too. He was quietly convincing a Maricopa County Superior Court judge that Ross had suffered a serious relapse of mental illness. She was, the ex-husband contended in mid-July, unfit to care for their two children.
With little more than a signed statement based largely on secondhand information, the ex-husband, Arizona Attorney General Joel Grant Woods, asked Judge Paul A. Katz for an emergency order. The order discontinued Ross' unsupervised access to their children, ages 8 and 11. It was a drastic change in a long, involved dispute over custody of the children. During the previous two months, the children had been spending alternating weeks at the mother's and father's homes. The custody arrangement was an expansion of a previous visitation agreement, under which Ross had custody of the children on alternating weekends. Woods suddenly was asking to suspend all unsupervised custody for Ross.
Arizona law requires judges to act carefully on requests to modify custody--especially when such a request comes from just one parent. Emergency requests are particularly sensitive. Such requests almost always require notice to the other parent, and an opportunity for that parent to be heard in court, before a ruling is made. If a hearing can't be held immediately--because a child is in danger, for example--then one must be held as soon as possible afterward.
These are basic rules of law.
In this case, however, no one bothered to alert Ross on July 15, when Woods asked the court to slap severe restrictions on her access to her children.
Ross never had a chance to counter Woods' allegations, which a state appeals court judge would later say were, at least in part, deceiving.
Katz signed the emergency order prepared by Woods' attorney on Monday, July 18. It immediately discontinued Ross' unsupervised access to the children "until her mental condition stabilizes." Katz had concluded Ross was mentally unstable without talking to her. This action would later be criticized by a state appeals court judge, who said it was a "finding of fact" without benefit of a hearing.
Although Ross has had a difficult mental-health history (she has been diagnosed as a manic-depressive), she claims there was nothing wrong with her when Woods asked to restrict her access to the children. In fact, she says, witnesses who were never allowed to appear before Katz would have testified to her stability. There is other evidence that Ross had control of her mental faculties in mid-July. She conducted a difficult civil trial in front of another Maricopa County Superior Court judge the same week that Katz declared her mentally unstable. In subsequent months, she has conducted complex legal work on international business deals while preparing numerous legal documents to battle her ex-husband.
The legal tactics employed by Woods and his attorneys were played out in secret, because the entire divorce case has been sealed from public scrutiny. But Ross, whose motion to have the case unsealed has been rejected by Katz, had had enough of private battle.
Over the last month, she has turned over sealed court records and audio tapes to New Times.
Those records paint a distressing picture. They show that the Arizona attorney general, his lawyers and a Maricopa County Superior Court judge trampled a fundamental legal right: the opportunity to have a day in court. It's called due process of law.
And in Ross' case, it was ignored. Not once, but twice.
These legal actions, however, came at the end of a long, tragic story that does not clearly display any heroes or villains. It's a story about a family's efforts to deal with divorce, two young children and the ups and downs of mental illness.
On a warm October afternoon in 1993, Barbara Ross orders a large iced coffee at the Coffee Plantation in Tempe and walks to an outside table, where she sits down. She picks a table in a corner, with a clear view of a plaza filled with an eclectic mix of office workers, students and slackers basking in pleasant fall sunlight.
Fortyish, slightly heavy, with long, blond hair and dangling earrings, Ross begins to describe her firsthand experience inside the county and state mental hospitals. Embarrassment and shame are absent in her description of the sad and confusing events of the previous few years. Instead, she fills the emotional space with frequent soft laughter, a sort of self-deprecating therapy to carry her through the afternoon. She uses psychomedical jargon like "acting out" and "therapeutic model" throughout the interview, lending an air of detachment to an intensely personal experience.
The meeting had been arranged to discuss a complicated business deal she was part of in 1985. But the talk soon turns to the emotional roller coaster that engulfed her after her divorce from Woods and during subsequent battles over the custody of their children.