Do as I say

State District Judge Hal Gaither has earned a reputation as a no-nonsense jurist.

In the seven years Gaither has sat on the bench in Dallas County juvenile court, making tough decisions on the sentencing of delinquents and the termination of parental rights, he has often preached the gospel of personal responsibility and family values.

His get-tough views on juvenile justice have even drawn the ear of Governor-elect George W. Bush, who counts Gaither among his closest advisors on the issue.

What angers Gaither the most, he told the Dallas Morning News in February 1993, "is parents who ignore court orders." That leads him to wonder, he said, "how such parents can possibly impart a sense of responsibility in their own children."

Words to live by indeed.
Yet in the year since Hal Gaither has been separated from his wife of 15 years, court records show, the judge twice dodged court hearings set to determine the amount of child support he was to pay for their 13-year-old daughter.

During the time Linda Gaither was desperately trying to get her husband to appear in family court, she alleges in court documents, the judge made only partial child support payments for two months and missed November's payment altogether.

"There is no question that this seems hypocritical," says Judge Gaither. "But I gave my attorney full authority to do whatever he thought was fair. I took my attorney's advice when to show up and when not to."

So much for taking personal responsibility.

Linda Lawson, a litigator in the Dallas city attorney's office, married Harold Gaither, 10 years her senior, on February 3, 1980. Fourteen years and one daughter later, their marriage--Gaither's second--ended because of a "conflict of personalities," according to her divorce petition.

The couple began living apart in November 1993, and Linda Gaither filed for divorce two months later, records show. Though Judge Gaither says he does not want the divorce, he and his wife managed to work out a financial arrangement for splitting bills and paying temporary child support without having to go to court. He was to pay $1,100 in support a month.

The Gaithers decided to split the cost of the mortgage on the custom 3,500-square-foot house they had shared in Cedar Hill as well as the rent on the apartment the judge had moved into. Then they were going to sell the house and divide the proceeds.

But by the summer of 1994, the arrangement had fallen apart. The judge decided he wanted to buy the couple's home. He left the apartment and moved back in; his estranged wife and their daughter moved out and into a small house she owns in Lake Highlands.

But there was a hitch. Gaither wanted Linda Gaither to continue covering half the payments on the Cedar Hill house; she didn't think she should.

Linda Gaither had previously allowed the judge to subtract her portion of the split housing costs from his child-support check. Now that the larger Cedar Hill home was his, she expected his support checks to rise to the agreed-upon $1,100 a month.

But Judge Gaither instead continuing subtracting the money.
"For several months I voluntarily paid child support," he comments. "Linda didn't complain until she changed the situation in a way that was not advantageous to herself."

After receiving only partial child support payments from the judge for two months, Linda Gaither decided to press the issue in court in the fall.

A hearing for temporary child support was set for 9 a.m. October 18 in the George Allen Court building, on the fifth floor--one floor below Judge Gaither's own courtroom.

But according to Linda Gaither, Gaither reported that he could not make the hearing because he was presiding over a jury trial. She found that excuse hard to swallow. "He was one floor away, and it was going to be a short hearing," she says.

Judge Gaither, after making the comment about taking his attorney's advice on "when to show up and when not to," referred questions on this issue to his lawyer, Steve Hulme.

Hulme says that the Gaithers did not have their hearing in October because the court master who was to preside did not have enough time to handle the hearing.

Hulme says what would normally have been a simple temporary-support hearing was going to take several hours because Gaither had decided to contest conservatorship of his daughter and was asking the court to order a social study and psychological evaluation of his wife.

"He had problems getting visitations between October and December," says Hulme, explaining why Gaither was contesting his wife's request for temporary managing conservatorship of their daughter.

Linda Gaither denies she ever prevented her husband from seeing their daughter.

A second hearing was set in front of the master on November 3. But that hearing did not come to pass either. Linda Gaither says her attorney was told that Judge Gaither could not attend because he had to drive to a meeting in Austin. She also recalls that the court coordinator said Judge Gaither's attorney had called the previous day and said the hearing was not needed because almost all the issues had been decided.

Hulme now claims Linda Gaither's attorney failed to put the hearing on the master's docket. He says his client left for the meeting in Austin only after the lawyer determined at 9 a.m. that the hearing was not on the master's schedule.

However, an Observer checkof the docket shows the hearing was, in fact, scheduled.

On November 23, Linda Gaither wrote a heartfelt letter to state District Judge Frances Harris requesting that she set and preside over a hearing for temporary orders. "This cause has been set for temporary orders on the Master's Docket on two previous occasions, but for various reasons has not been heard. This pattern of scheduling hearings only to have them cancelled by [Judge Gaither] has continued for several months. During such time, I have never received a full child support payment and have received no payment for the month of November."

Linda Gaither also had her psychiatrist send a letter to the family court judge attesting to her fitness as a mother. "I have seen Mrs. Gaither since December 1987...because of increasing anxiety attacks secondary to her marital difficulties," Dr. Rege Stewart wrote. "During my encounters with her I have been very much impressed with her nurturant quality and her great care and concern about her daughter. She is a dedicated mother who may at times even have jeopardized her own marriage in order to be available to her daughter. Apparently her husband resented the times she spent with her daughter and felt at times jeolous [sic] of the close relationship...Mrs. Gaither also had suffered from some depressive symptoms secondary to her very difficult marriage and divorce."

Judge Harris set a hearing for December 12. Calling it a "special number one preferential setting," she warned both parties in writing to "NOT entertain the idea of filing a motion for continuance."

The hearing was short. Judge Harris--clearly agreeing that Linda Gaither should not have to subsidize her estranged husband for living in the Cedar Hill home--awarded Linda Gaither $1,174 a month in temporary child support.

Gaither's attorney was supposed to prepare a written order, according to Linda Gaither.

"When a week went by and it didn't get done, I went ahead and did it myself. If I didn't get the judge to sign the order by the end of December, I would have been out that month's child support too."

Hulme complains that Linda Gaither didn't fax him the order until a week later.

"That's because he was out of town," she responds. "The man has not returned my phone calls in weeks."

Judge Gaither was supposed to make his first court-ordered payment on December 27, his next payment on January 1, and payments on the first of every month thereafter, according to the court order. His first payment arrived on time. His second did not.

Hulme says the judge was confused about the terms of the court order and thought he was supposed to pay on January 27.

Upon learning of his error, Hulme says Judge Gaither put his second payment in the mail January 5.

"This divorce is not something I wanted to do," says Judge Gaither. "It's not something I want now. I wish there is some way we could avoid it. And I love that little girl with all my heart. I would do nothing to cause her one moment's pain."

Go tell it to the judge.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ann Zimmerman