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Judging the Best Interests of the Child: Judges' Accounts of the Tender Years Doctrine

Julie E. Artis
Law & Society Review
Vol. 38, No. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 769-806
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Law and Society Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1555090
Page Count: 38
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Judging the Best Interests of the Child: Judges' Accounts of the Tender Years Doctrine
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Abstract

With dramatic changes in family life over the last several decades, child custody law has shifted from a maternal preference to a more egalitarian standard, the best interests of the child. Despite this change in the law, scholars have debated whether gender continues to play a role in the resolution of custody disputes. Drawing on feminist legal scholarship and sociolegal research on judges, I assess the current debates over gender and custody by examining the accounts of judges who frequently adjudicate custody cases. I conduct indepth, face-to-face interviews with twenty-five trial court judges in Indiana and investigate judges' accounts about whether they continue to use the tender years doctrine in custody disputes, even though the custody statute is explicitly gender-neutral. Then, I assess several competing explanations of the variation across judges' accounts, including the judges' gender role attitudes, gender, age, and political party affiliation. In exploratory analyses, I also examine the contested custody rulings of a subset of nine judges to assess whether judges' accounts are congruent with their actual custody decisions. I discuss the implications of these findings in light of feminist legal scholarship as well as empirical research on child custody adjudication.

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