Michael Newdow, who gained national prominence for trying to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, paid $320,000 of his ex-girlfriend's attorney fees Friday, complaining that he should not have to finance her fight for their daughter's custody.
Newdow said his frustration with family law dwarfs his passion about the pledge issue, which he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago this month. The court refused to consider his case, ruling instead that he could not argue the issue on behalf of his school-age daughter because he did not have custody of her.
He said a judge's order that he pay a portion of the mother's legal fees encourages her to fight his every request and is unconstitutional.
He laments that the money lost to lawyers could have paid "to send my daughter to Harvard, twice."
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That's why, he said, he is refusing to sign a settlement agreement that would preclude him from seeking further modifications in the couple's custody orders for the next three years.
Failure to sign the agreement - or a breach of the agreement - would cost him an additional $50,000 in legal fees accrued during the couple's six-year custody battle over their 10-year-old daughter, according to the document.
"All I've ever said is, 'She's a fine parent, I'm a fine parent; let's make it 50-50,'" said Newdow, an emergency room doctor and attorney, who has represented himself in family law court, the 3rd District Court of Appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court.
But attorneys for the child's mother, Sandra Banning, say it is time-honored practice for judges to order one parent to pay attorney fees for another if there is an income disparity - as in this case.
Last year, the 3rd District Court of Appeal ordered Newdow to pay the fees, throwing out his argument that it was unconstitutional and noting that the requirement allows both parties to have equal representation in the case.
Banning said Newdow has driven up the legal costs by filing excessive numbers of petitions with the court and by refusing to accept the current custody arrangement, which gives him about two weekends a month with his daughter, as well as every other week when she is out of school.
"If he would agree to a final order, he could appeal it and we could move on," Banning said Friday. "But we continue to have a temporary order and then he continues to go back to court."
At least some of those hearings centered on Newdow's desire to have his daughter, a straight-A fifth-grader, watch him argue his Pledge case to the Supreme Court. Judge James A. Mize ruled that it would be inappropriate because custody issues would be discussed.
A bulk of the fees were so that Banning's attorneys, Dianne M. Fetzer and Jay-Allen Eisen, could prepare for a 10-day custody trial, which ended in September 2003, and Newdow's challenges to the constitutionality of the legal fees. "He's a heated and passionate guy," said Eisen, who called the custody battle "extra messy in terms of acrimony and persistence."
Newdow said Friday he is consumed with the custody case.
"It affects my whole life," he said despondently. "It's always there. I must spend half my time just screaming at the walls."
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