Divorce files are often filled with interesting information about important San Diegans, but these court documents are being sealed with increasing frequency.
Former city councilman Mike Gotch, real estate developer Terry Sheldon, former council candidate Marla Marshall, and state Senator Larry Stirling have all managed to frustrate the press by persuading judges to seal the public records of their marital disputes. But Daniel Broderick III, a prominent personal injury/medical malpractice lawyer, has gone a step further in barring public review of his lengthy and very contentious divorce proceedings.
Over the initial objections of Broderick’s former wife, his divorce lawyer persuaded a judge to ban the press and public from observing the couple’s divorce trial, which ended last Friday. Broderick also managed to avoid being photographed by leaving the courtroom through a rear exit, despite a county policy that allows such maneuvers only when there’s a “security problem” or the possibility of violent altercations. And if his ex-wife Betty is to be believed,
Broderick’s excellent legal skills and connections in the local legal community helped frustrate her efforts to hire a top-notch divorce attorney. But the absence of a lawyer hasn’t intimidated Betty Broderick: she has spent several days in county jail and been fined thousands of dollars over the past three years for ignoring court orders, and she acted as her own lawyer in the divorce trial.
Dan Broderick’s divorce attorney — Gerald L. Barry, Jr., of Mitchell, Keeney, Barry & Pike — urged Judge William Howatt, Jr., to close the Broderick vs. Broderick trial because the couple’s four children would be psychologically harmed if details of the stormy divorce were made public. That request was buttressed with three letters written by counselors familiar with the divorce proceedings. But Betty Broderick claims her former husband wanted to ban the press and public from the proceedings because “he just wants to hide what he’s been able to accomplish through his use of the legal system.” Mrs. Broderick says she wanted the courtroom doors open “on principle.... I have nothing to hide, and it’s a public proceeding.”
But when Judge Howatt’s decision to bar the press and public was challenged by the Reader's attorney at a January 5 hearing, Betty Broderick reversed herself and told the judge that the courtroom should remain closed. She says her change of heart was prompted by the ability of her husband’s attorney “to turn the entire issue [of courtroom access] around and make it entirely one of whether I wanted to actively harm or not harm my children.” Judge Howatt again declined to open the courtroom, explaining that the trial was nearly completed and that it was in the children’s best interest to keep it closed.
A “Courtroom Closed” sign was taped to the door, and no notice of the trial was listed on the court calendar or published on the back pages of the Daily Transcript legal newspaper, as is routine. The Broderick vs. Broderick divorce file has been sealed, and even Judge Howatt was unable to gather the complete file for review before the trial started December 27. “I have pieces of things, but apparently some of it is missing,” the judge said last week.
Still, the four-year-old divorce case is hardly a secret. Betty Broderick has spoken about her legal travails at a public meeting of HALT, a citizen’s group critical of the U.S. legal system, and she has talked openly about the case to her La Jolla friends and to interested reporters. She also asked some of the city’s leading divorce lawyers to handle her case, so word of the tumultuous proceedings has spread through the legal community. And Dan Broderick sat for a 90-minute interview with two reporters last year.
Betty Broderick first went looking for legal help in 1985. The couple’s 16-year marriage was collapsing, and several months later Dan Broderick would file for divorce. Betty Broderick says she quickly eliminated some of San Diego’s best family-law specialists from consideration, including S. Michael Love, Rex Jones III, and Gerald McMahon, because they were friends with her husband. Ned Huntington, a top divorce lawyer who last year succeeded Dan Broderick as president of the county Bar Association, was also off the list. (“I wouldn’t even waste my dime because I knew they were too tight,” she said in an interview.)
Mrs. Broderick did call another illustrious divorce lawyer, Thomas Ashworth, but she claims he turned her away with the explanation that he would soon be appointed to the family-law bench. Mrs. Broderick learned soon after that Ashworth was representing her husband. Ashworth resigned the case after he was given a judgeship and says he doesn’t remember Betty ever asking him to represent her, but he acknowledges that he probably would have declined her case “because Dan is somewhat of a friend.”
Though other well-respected divorce lawyers turned her away, Mrs. Broderick eventually did secure representation by a succession of attorneys, including Tricia Smith of Del Mar and Daniel Jaffe of Beverly Hills. But her association with each one ultimately ended, and there’s ample evidence that her inability to hold on to a good lawyer has been much her own fault. Though she received $118,000 a year in alimony and child-support payments from her ex-husband, she complains that she couldn’t afford their services. (She gave one lawyer a gold and diamond necklace in lieu of a cash retainer fee.) And while she claims that Jaffe, the Beverly Hills attorney, stopped representing her within six months because Dan Broderick wouldn’t honor his promise to pay Jaffe’s retainer, Jaffe disputes her allegation.
Betty Broderick’s behavior itself has frustrated the divorce proceedings. After the Brodericks had agreed to sell their La Jolla home in early 1986, Betty balked at the last minute, forcing Dan’s lawyer to obtain an emergency court order to sell the house. And though Mrs. Broderick holds out that incident as evidence of Broderick’s masterful ability to manipulate the court system, her lawyer at that time says he was disgusted with Betty’s actions. “I wanted out,” attorney Jaffe recalls. “I got her far more money for the house than she was entitled to get, [but] she wouldn’t follow my advice.” She later stymied an agreement to have the divorce mediated by purposely misspelling her name on the mediation contract.
The divorce proceedings have been marred by other spectacular incidents. After the court-ordered house sale was completed, Betty Broderick rammed her car through the front door of her former husband’s Hillcrest home. Though the couple’s divorce became official in July 1986 (last week’s court hearing covered the issues of alimony, child support, and custody), she was later sentenced to a month in the Las Colinas woman’s prison for repeatedly harassing her ex-husband, and he once deducted $5000 from her monthly alimony payments because she trespassed on his property and used offensive language in front of the couple’s children.
Dan Broderick hauled her back to court last May on similar harassment charges, and though he urged Judge Tony Joseph not to throw her in jail, he didn’t protest the $8000 fine the judge levied against her. At that hearing, held in open court,
Judge Joseph also chastised Dan Broderick for misusing the court system. “Don’t file any more contempts unless you’re prepared to have her [Mrs. Broderick] sentenced,” the angry judge warned.
The stakes in last week’s divorce trial were much higher. Betty Broderick is seeking more than $250,000 in annual alimony/child support payments from her husband, whom she has said earns upward of $1 million a year. (Mrs. Broderick has said she needs the money to finance a budget that includes payments on her La Jolla home, $31,000 yearly for “clothes and accessories,” and almost $6000 worth of “travel and education.”) But she had no lawyer to represent her. She argued the case herself, accompanied only by a woman she met a HALT meeting.
Because the court proceedings were closed, it’s unclear what Dan Broderick’s lawyer urged the judge to do on the alimony and child support matters, but Mr. Broderick’s lawyer last year stated that payments of $9000 monthly for a year, followed by $5000 a monthly for five more years, would be fair. And a 1987 settlement offer drawn up by Broderick’s attorney notes that Broderick has already paid more on community debts and cash advances to Betty than half their property is worth. In fact, she owed him $835,601.81 at that time, the settlement offer stated.
Judge Howatt said this week that he’ll issue his decision in the Broderick case January 30. But that ruling probably won’t bring the divorce to its conclusion. “It’s going to resolve some community property issues, but it’s not going to end this thing,” Dan Broderick has said. “It’s not going to end until one of us is gone.”