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Judge denies petition on child custody issues

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — A federal judge’s decision gave the go-ahead last week to an Alabama Supreme Court committee looking to revise state child-support guidelines.

U.S. District Court Judge W. Harold Albritton’s order dismissed claims by two non-custodial parents who wanted to propose changes in the schedule judges use to determine child-support amounts. Critics charged the new schedule will cost middle-class parents while letting higher income parents off easier.

James R. Blackston and Bradley Barber had asked the judge to stop action of the Advisory Committee for Child Support Guidelines and Enforcement.

Albritton said it is time to end the case that began in the 1990s.

A spokesman for the Administrative Office of Courts said the child support committee will likely meet in mid-January to work on final recommendations for the state Supreme Court.

History of court tangles

The advisory committee and Blackston and Barber have a history of court tangles dating to 1995.

A 2003 federal court settlement agreement set guidelines needed to end a suit Blackston and Barber filed in 1995. Blackston filed at least three court appeals since that time.

In the duo’s latest court petition, they argued that the state violated the settlement agreement.

Part of the settlement agreement required the state to appoint Blackston as a member of the advisory committee and Barber as his alternate.

Both men were non-custodial parents paying child support at that time.

Opportunity for input?

Blackston said the committee does not give the public enough opportunity for input into its decisions.

He believes the proposed changes in child-support rates for middle-income parents would be too high. Experts the court hired disagree and point out that low-income parents should pay less.

A federal law passed in 1988 requires Alabama and other states to have established guidelines for awarding child support. The Family Support Act of 1988 also requires states to review the guidelines to receive federal aid for low-income families. States must conduct a review every four years.

Blackston’s latest complaints, filed with Albritton in September, alleged the state violated the settlement agreement by not giving the public enough notice of committee meetings.

During an Oct. 30 hearing, Wayne Jones, an attorney working with the state Supreme Court, disagreed that the public was not notified of meetings.

Blackston also charged that the Supreme Court violated the settlement agreement when it did not reappoint him as a member of the advisory committee when original term limits ended in September.

Albritton ruled last week in favor of the state on all points, and he ordered the case closed.

Albritton said the court was not required to reappoint Blackston to the committee because the settlement agreement ended. The judge also said the settlement agreement does not require the committee to notify the public about meetings.

Keith Camp, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Courts, said he expects the committee to meet in January.

Child support issues

When an Alabama Supreme Court advisory committee meets again, it must decide key points in proposed changes to state child support guidelines.

The points include:

  • Adjustment of the child-support schedule judges use to determine how much child support divorced parents pay based on their income.

  • Whether to consider the needs of any other children a parent may have who are not part of the current child support agreement.

  • Whether to allow a deduction for full family cost or only a child’s portion of the cost for health insurance.

    M.J. Ellington

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