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Ever Since Working Mom Sharon Prost Lost Custody of Her Children, She’s Gotten a Lot of Support From Her Office, the Senate Judiciary Committee. Is the Congressional Aid Just Team Spirit, or Is It an Unfair Advantage?
The name on the docket is Prost v. Greene, but those who remember the lawsuit know it as “The Case of the Woman Who Worked Too Late.” In 1994, Sharon Prost, a top aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), lost custody of her two children when a D.C. Superior Court family judge deemed her too career-oriented to take care of kids.
During court proceedings, Prost watched her work ethic become evidence against her. An au pair took the stand to testify that the “plaintiff always ate dinner alone and very late at nightoften, while sitting on the kitchen floor, with her plate on the floor, talking on the phone or writing while she was eating.”
When Prost’s story came out, it tapped into the nightmares of every working mother. But Prost’s case did not just disappear, another footnote in the family values debate. Today, 18 months after it made headlines, Prost’s case is still reverberating in the Senate. Prost is fighting back in the D.C. Court of Appeals, which on Jan. 17 heard arguments for reassigning the case to another judge.
Prost’s effort is backed by a peculiar coalition of liberal feminist lawyers and one of the country’s most conservative senators. The Women’s Legal Defense Fund stepped forward to write a brief on bias toward men in custody battles. Hatch testified on Prost’s behalf. More importantly, he has galvanized some of his colleagues in the Senate by arguing that Prost’s loss of custody reflects directly on Capitol Hill as a workplace for women.
Remarkably, Hatch succeeded in establishing a Senate legal expense trust fund for Prost, allowing her to raise $10,000 a year from individuals, lobbyists, and political action committees. As deputy chief counsel for the Judiciary Committee, Prost would ordinarily be barred from any fund-raising. And while legal expense funds are routinely established for staffers involved in ethics battles, Senate regulations expressly prohibit trusts for “purely personal matters, to include…divorces.” That rule had never been waived until this case. A letter signed by Hatch and 15 other senators contended that the Superior Court decision was not a personal matter because it implied “that women who work in the Senate are ipso facto unfit mothers.”
As of mid-January, Prost’s fund had collected $18,010.36. (She can collect a maximum of $20,000 by August 1996.) While many of the donations are small sums from Prost’s friends, some of the largest ones come from traditional Hatch supporters. The largest single contribution, $5,000, was made by the law firm Thompson and Hutson, whose senior partner, Robert Thompson, is a longtime friend and supporter of Hatch’s. Hatch himself gave $1,000, as did Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Tom Korologos, a Utah lobbyist who has also supported Hatch’s legal defense and election funds, pitched in $500 when he was informed about the case. The list of donors also includes lobbying groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and the Construction Education Foundation.
Contributors say there is nothing remarkable or questionable in this show of support for Prost: It is a simple case of a boss going to bat for his employee. Hatch “is very involved because someone close to him is being hurt. He was outraged” by the custody decision, said David Thompson, also a partner in Thompson and Hutson. Senate personnel “do care about their own. As much fighting and squawking as goes on, they share a common lifestyle and they are very concerned.”
From Prost’s point of view, the fund is hardly a major windfall or unfair advantage. She estimates that she has paid $100,000 in legal fees out of her own pocket and rejects the idea that she has profited from her Senate position.
“If I worked at a Giant Food store, and a group of managers got together and were incensed that the judge had mischaracterized the hours…there would be nothing outrageous about that,” she says. “The need arose from my work in the Senate. I would not have lost my kids if I had not worked in the Senate.”
But that’s not what the case looks like to Ken Greene. He sees it this way: His ex-wife is being lionized by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and her legal fees are being paid by a Senate-sponsored fund financed by Hatch’s colleagues and supporters. Meanwhile, he quietly empties his bank account. Greene estimates that he has spent $100,000 of his own money on the case. He contends that the decisive issue in the ruling was not Prost’s long work hours but her pattern of excluding him from the children. Most galling to him is the Senate’s embrace of her as a symbol.
“This is a private matter. What is this, with 15 senators signing a petition about something they know nothing about? It’s the old boy thing: ‘She’s one of ours, we’ll take care of her,’ ” he says, with a look of pure indignation. “What do 15 senators know about my family?”
At any rate, congressional support in Prost v. Greene has not been very effective in changing the mind of the one person who counts: Harriett Taylor, the Superior Court judge who wrote the original decision. Shortly after the 1994 ruling awarding custody to Greene, 15 senators signed a statement supporting a stay pending the appeal, arguing that Prost’s loss was a disturbing legal precedent for working women. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Kennedy, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), Hatch, Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Paul Simon (D-Ill.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Joe Biden (D-Del.) signed on.
“While we cannot take a position on the merits of Ms. Prost’s case,” wrote the senators, “we do believe that this decision raises serious questions with respect to the court’s view of career women, particularly those employed by the Senate, and may suggest that such women solely by virtue of their employment put their families at risk in a custody battle.”
Taylor would have none of it. In a responding memorandum, which rejected 27 appending exhibits from Prost, Taylor lashed back.
“The Court has great respect for the members of the Judiciary Committee, for the United States Senate, and for the reported efforts of that body to accommodate the needs of working women….But that does not change the fact that the Statement is completely outside of the record in this case. Neither does it obscure the obvious: that by submitting this Statement, plaintiff suggests that, in deciding the custody of the parents’ children, the Court should consider its effect on the personnel policies of the United States Senate. Both plaintiff and her attorney should know better.”
Taylor added one final blast: “This case is not about working women generally or women working in the Senate in particular; it is about two working parents and two young children.”
She wrote that in 1994, a week before the case hit the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, 20/20, Working Woman, and Time. These days, with the possibility of book deals and made-for-TV movies on the horizon, and with women on and off the Hill watching, the case may never mean that little again. CP