Tom Eblen

Judge copies plot from his novel in some divorce cases before his court

Circuit Judge Tim Philpot of Fayette County Family Court.
Circuit Judge Tim Philpot of Fayette County Family Court. teblen@herald-leader.com

“All rise!” the bailiff commands as Circuit Judge Tim Philpot takes his seat behind the bench for “motion hour” in Fayette County Family Court.

A dozen attorneys and their clients wait to be heard. The clients are average-looking people from many walks of life. But something is broken in each of their lives, or else they wouldn’t be here.

Most are fighting about custody of their children, cases complicated by old grudges, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new jobs, financial problems or drug abuse. Some parents are divorced or divorcing; others have never been married.

As Philpot asks questions to sort out one family’s tangled circumstances, others in the courtroom can’t help but snicker, even though the story is more sad than funny.

“It sounds like they should make a movie,” the judge finally said to break the tension.

Philpot isn’t a movie producer. But now, after 13 years as a Family Court judge, he is a novelist. He recently published Judge Z: Irretrievably Broken ($20, Judgezbook.com).

“I was trying to write a serious, scholarly book about marriage, but it was just too complicated,” Philpot said after court. “So I turned it into a novel, and it made sense and I started having fun with it.”

The book is an engaging, well-written story about a judge who orders a controversial hearing to slow down the divorce of a couple with young children in the hope they will reconcile.

Philpot has generated some controversy by bringing a little of that process into his own courtroom — not that anyone will complain about it publicly.

“One of the problems with being a judge is that nobody tells you the truth,” he said. “I know there’s some negativity (among lawyers and other judges). Change is difficult.”

More about that later. First, the book.

“I was not trying to write an anti-divorce book,” said Philpot, 65, who has been married to his wife, Sue, since 1971. “I was trying to write a pro-marriage book. I don’t know if the book’s any good, but I know I’ve hit on the right subject.”

Time magazine’s latest cover shows two wedding rings connected with a heart-shaped padlock and the cover-story headline: “How to stay married (and why).”

Philpot is a socially conservative Methodist, a former Republican state senator and son of the late TV evangelist Ford Philpot. He has been an outspoken critic of legalizing same-sex marriage, but this book doesn’t deal with that issue.

“The main tragedy is that straight people don’t want to get married anymore,” he said. “Social norms have totally changed. Marriage doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Judge Z: Irretrievably Broken explores the social costs of divorce, babies born out of wedlock and children growing up in unstable homes. Philpot also writes about marriage as the Biblical analogy for God’s love.

The novel is enlightening, whether or not you share Philpot’s interpretation of Christianity. And it has enough humor and fiction to be entertaining. I bristled at his inaccurate portrayal of journalists. But, as Philpot said, every story needs a villain.

The book’s main character feels persecuted by journalists, divorce lawyers and the legal system. Judge Atticus Zenas — Judge Z — is a widowed, 50-year-old Family Court judge burned out by the social carnage he sees in court every day.

I decided if I was going to write about a crazy judge, I had to act a little crazy myself.

Judge Tim Philpot of Fayette County Family Court

Philpot called his character Zenas after the only lawyer named in the Bible. The rest of the book’s title, Irretrievably Broken, is a phrase from Kentucky law that judges use in determining that a marriage can be legally dissolved.

Any couple seeking divorce has a broken marriage. But Philpot said the legal standard raises a question: “Is it a shattered glass, or a bone that’s broken and can grow back stronger?”

In one plot line of the book, Jack and Mary Stirling, who have three children, come to court for a divorce. Jack has a girlfriend and wants out, but Mary is determined to keep the family together. When Zenas asks if their marriage is “irretrievably” broken, she asks what that means. The judge realizes he doesn’t really know.

Zenas enlists the help of a law professor and outside experts, and they conduct an Irretrievably Broken Hearing. That provides a literary device for Philpot to write about the importance of marriage, both religiously and socially.

But writing wasn’t enough for Philpot. “I decided if I was going to write about a crazy judge, I had to act a little crazy myself,” he said.

Philpot said he has recently been conducting short, informal Irretrievably Broken Hearings in divorce cases assigned to him that involve children. When a couple’s testimony makes him think there is a chance for reconciliation, he asks them to attend a “discernment counseling” session to better think through their decisions.

Philpot said it is too soon to say if the process has stopped any divorces. Because he is acting within the 60-day waiting period allowed by Kentucky law, there is nothing couples who object or their attorneys can do but grumble privately.

As “motion hour” ended that morning in late May, the last people to appear before Philpot were two middle-aged professionals seeking an uncontested divorce. They had no attorneys with them, and the judge remarked that they lacked the obvious animosity he sees in many divorcing couples. They replied that they want to remain on good terms for the sake of their children.

Their comments — and perhaps the fact that I was watching — prompted Philpot to conduct an impromptu, off-the-record Irretrievably Broken Hearing in which he asked about their children and whether there was a chance for reconciliation.

“The fact that you’re different and have differences may not mean you need a divorce,” Philpot said. “It may mean you need each other.”

After talking with the couple for 15 minutes, Philpot ordered them to attend a discernment counseling session.

“I’m not trying to stop divorces,” Philpot told them. “But I’m trying to put a speed bump in the path of what is usually a speeding freight train.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

To hear more

Judge Tim Philpot will speak about his book at three events. All are free and open to the public.

▪  11:45 – 1 p.m. June 6 and June 13, First Southern National Bank, 3600 Harrodsburg Rd. Brown bag lunch.

▪  7 p.m. – 8:15 p.m. June 9, Francis Asbury Society, 1580 Lexington Rd., Wilmore. It is the first session of a 12-week series. More information: Francisasburysociety.com

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