Duane Okken is a relatively short, apparently fit man with a boyish face, soft hands and blow-dried hair. Seated at a conference table, he wears tasseled loafers, socks selected with some care and a neatly ironed shirt, its top two buttons open.

His pale-blue eyes do not betray the fire of a kamikaze. But for almost three years, the 34-year-old real estate attorney has launched wave after wave of legal sorties in a nonstop war with his former wife, and virtually everyone involved in the couple's divorce.

He has sued his ex-wife, claiming she deliberately tricked him into marriage by becoming pregnant. He has sued her parents for racketeering, claiming that they helped try to defraud him out of child-support money.

He sued both his divorce attorney and his ex-wife's divorce attorney for allegedly mishandling the case. He even sued the psychologist who performed evaluations to determine custody of the couple's son, claiming the psychologist was biased.

The targets of his attacks call them the bitter thrashings of a revenge-driven man. All of the cases were withdrawn before they went anywhere.

Except one.
In late September, one of Okken's lawsuits rose above the background noise of the thousands of divorces granted in Maricopa County each year, and broke new legal ground.

As a result, Arizona parents lost their ability to legally challenge the psychologists who are routinely called in to help decide which parent should have primary custody of children of divorce.

In an unusual pre-emptive ruling, a panel of the state Court of Appeals decided that psychologists used in such cases enjoy absolute judicial immunity for their actions and recommendations.

In short, they cannot be sued, even if they foul up or are clearly biased toward one of the parties in a custody case. A parent who believes he has been badly treated now has no recourse, except to file a complaint with the board that grants psychology licenses.

Hundreds of times each year, psychologists are called in to advise judges on which parent is best suited to retain the most control over a child's life.

Although generally both parents share custody of their children in some judicially decreed fashion, one must be picked to have "primary custody," or the final say, in major decisions about the child's life.

The psychologist's recommendations are not binding, but attorneys say they are most often taken on faith by judges faced with the Solomon's task of deciding a youngster's fate.

"It's my experience that courts will defer extensively to psychologists in custody cases," says James Bruce, one Phoenix divorce lawyer.

It is not an exact science, attorneys and psychologists agree. Instead, it calls for a subjective assessment of which parent is best suited to shepherd a child through life.

"It's a voodoo science. This is psychology, not math, where two times two equals four every time," says Okken. "It's pretty much a beauty contest." But now psychologists who perform custody evaluations have been handed a cloak of immunity, their findings not subject to question by affected parents.

The court's decision has rippled through the close-knit world of child-custody work to mixed reactions. Many psychologists and attorneys welcome it, saying it affords psychologists a buffer from wounded parents, like Okken, who might be tempted to file harassing lawsuits in the wake of their divorces.

"In almost any situation, one of the parents is distressed with the outcome, and that leaves the court-appointed expert in jeopardy," says Thomas DiBartolomeo, past president of the Arizona Psychological Association. "[The ruling] just takes out of the realm of possibility the legal liability of a lawsuit."
But Okken and, ironically, one of the attorneys who has been a target of his lawsuits say the ruling unfairly prevents parents from scrutinizing people who play a key role in shaping the future of their families.

"Judicial immunity is one of the last vestiges of 'The King is sovereign and the King can do no wrong,'" says Okken. "You now have no protection against this."
Joseph Richter, the attorney representing Okken's ex-wife, feels the same way. "I'm not in accord with anybody getting absolute judicial immunity that would include even immunity if they acted with malice," he says. "That's repugnant to me."

One of the appellate judges agreed, noting in his dissent that psychologists are paid by the parents in custody cases, and should be willing to defend their conclusions. "The risk and expense of defending one's actions is inherent in the business of offering on the open market one's professional services," Court of Appeals Judge John Taylor wrote.

But for now, at least, the rules of the divorce game in Arizona have been changed by the divorce of Duane Okken and Robin Crozier-Okken.

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David Pasztor