Lawmakers again consider adding domestic violence as grounds for divorce

Lawmakers again consider adding domestic violence as grounds for divorce
A report from the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System warned of a money crisis in the future, saying the system will not reach its minimum goal of 80 percent funding by 2042. (Photo source: WDAM)

LAMAR COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - State lawmakers are again expected to consider adding domestic violence as a reason Mississippians can file for divorce.

In 2016, Sen. Sally Doty (R-Brookhaven) filed Senate Bill 2418, which would have made domestic abuse the thirteenth ground for divorce in Mississippi, but the bill died at the end of session.

"There was quite a bit of debate last session about that particular issue," said Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall. "I think the reason, personally, that it didn't go any farther than it did was because it was sort of thrown at us at the very last minute. Especially the non-attorneys, which is the vast majority of the legislature, had to get up to speed and educated on the issue and when it was tossed out in the last couple of hours of the legislative session without any sort of preview or any time for them to review what the issue really is and why do we need this, it just caught a lot of people off guard, and people hesitant to pass major policy changes to the law without doing their due diligence."

Rep. Brad Touchstone, R-Lamar County, said as a former county prosecutor, he sees the need for an additional grounds for divorce, but could also foresee potential problems had the bill been passed as presented last year.

"I think most lawmakers would agree that domestic violence certainly should be grounds for divorce," Touchstone said. "As Sen. Fillingane mentioned, there were some concerns about the bill that came at the very last minute as we ran out of time, particularly, I can tell you a concern that I had (was) with the language in the bill. As a former prosecutor, it was not unusual for divorce litigants to abuse the criminal system with criminal charges in order to try to bolster their position in a divorce. We had some concerns about the way simple assault, bodily injury was defined in that bill. We certainly want spouses who are trapped in these kind of relationships to have this way out, but we do also want to make sure that the chancery judges who are hearing the evidence in a divorce are the ones making that decision and it's not being made in another court, perhaps by a justice court judge who is not a lawyer and doesn't have the experience dealing with all of the domestic issues like a chancery judge. So I think if we can tweak the language a little bit in the bill, I think we will eventually see domestic violence added as a grounds for divorce, and I certainly support that."

With a year to think about and rework the legislation, Doty said Monday that she plans to refile the bill with adjustments to the wording.

"I think that we've had the of session to think about that," Fillingane said. "Hopefully, the proponents of that legislation have had time to contact members of the legislature and get them up to date on why we need this, but I'm in total favor of doing something along those lines. What you, unfortunately, have sometimes is you have people trapped in what's essentially not a marriage anymore anyway, but you have one person who really wants to be out and one person, maybe even an abusive situation, where they don't want to let them out. And so they hold this over their heads, and try to force them into a continuing abusing relationship or a financially abusive relationship, sexually, physically, whatever. It can be very corrosive, and I think harmful, while still understanding that we all support the sanctity of marriage. We certainly want to encourage, you know, the nuclear families to thrive, but at the same time, when you have abuse going on and people are being hurt and physically harmed, at that point I think you have to realize that's reality too, unfortunately, in some circumstances. We need to make that situation possible for a victim to get out of an abusive situation."

With several of Hattiesburg's homicides in 2016 stemming from domestic violence incidents, and as an attorney in Lamar County, Fillingane said he thinks the addition is needed and hopes it becomes a reality.

"I actually, in my private law practice, practice quite a bit of domestic law, and I can certainly see the need for an additional ground," Fillingane said. "Whether you call it a thirteenth ground for divorce or an abandonment ground that either side can use or just simply amending the no fault divorce statue to allow for anyone after a certain period of time to access that ground, I'm totally in favor of any of that, and I certainly hope that it comes about."