Judge denies lawyer's request to delay hearing while she was on maternity leave
Lawyer brought 4-week-old to hearing, got earful from judge when baby cried
Women across the country were outraged the judge did not delay the hearing
Women say case shows workplaces don't understand demands of working parents
Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
When I first heard the story about an Atlanta judge who reprimanded an immigration attorney for bringing her 4-week-old to court for a hearing – a hearing the attorney, Stacy Ehrisman-Mickle, told CNN she asked the judge to reschedule because she was on her six-week maternity leave – I was outraged like many other working women.
Two other immigration judges – one male, another female – in two unrelated cases granted Ehrisman-Mickle’s request to delay hearings while she was on maternity leave, she said in an interview.
What appears to be a lack of compassion by the judge in question is troubling but sadly not surprising, many women say.
“Hearings are rescheduled all the time for a variety of reasons,” said Avital Norman Nathman, editor of the motherhood anthology “The Good Mother Myth” and a mom of a 7-year-old. “To not reschedule a hearing because a lawyer is on maternity leave is appalling and disrespectful toward the attorney on both a professional and personal level.”
Valerie Young, who practiced maritime law for more than a decade before becoming a policy analyst with Mom-mentum, formerly known as the National Association of Mothers’ Centers, said maternity leave is “generally regarded as a ‘vacation’ by the profession.”
“The judiciary continues to be majority ‘pale, male and stale,’ like most positions of power and authority in this country,” she said. “I heard counsel (usually male) plead trial conflicts, planned vacation and even time off for custodial visits with their kids (‘Your honor, I only get them for two weeks every summer’) and the court always accommodated those other commitments.”
There was plenty of comment, too, about what this story says about the state of maternity leave policies in our country.
“Why is it that the United States is so slow at accepting what so many other countries already know – that nurturing, caring and being ‘present’ in the life of a newborn/infant is crucial for development and bonding?” said Louise Sattler, a school psychologist and owner of a business providing sign language instruction.
But the larger outrage may be in reaction to how immigration Judge J. Dan Pelletier Sr. scolded Ehrisman-Mickle for bringing her child to court, when the infant, strapped in a baby carrier, started to cry during the hearing.
“Counsel, don’t you think this is inappropriate?” Ehrisman-Mickle said the judge asked her. She told him she thought she should be home with her baby and that is why she asked for a delay in the hearing.
Did the judge assume the mom would have chosen to bring her child to a hearing instead of leaving the infant in the care of someone she trusted? Would any woman have truly chosen that option unless she felt she had no other choice?
Ehrisman-Mickle’s husband, a truck driver, was out of state; she had no family in the area and her child was too young for day care, she said. When she took her baby to the pediatrician right after the hearing, she said the doctor told her the child was fine since she used a baby carrier and did not let anyone touch her.
Ironically, Pelletier, after the baby started crying, said her doctor must be appalled that she was exposing the child to so many germs by bringing the child to court, Ehrisman-Mickle said.
“I was just humiliated in a room full of attorneys and respondents,” she said.
She has since filed a complaint with the Executive Office of Immigration Review, she said.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review does not comment on the legal bases for which motions are denied or granted, spokewoman Kathryn Mattingly told CNN. “Further, it is our understanding that a complaint has been filed regarding this event and is being processed pursuant to the procedures for handling complaints against immigration judges,” said Mattingly.
We were unable to reach Judge Pelletier directly. Mattingly said that immigration judges do not give interviews to the press, nor comment on their decisions.
“As for this specific situation, this was a case of ‘common sense’ not showing up to court,” said Sattler. “This mother, who was given purportedly little to no choice, had to compromise the health of her child to appease the inflexible court system.”
The story is just one case and certainly does not mean that all employers would have handled the situation the same way. But it does show how far we still need to go to get to a point where workplaces – from courtrooms to corner offices – are understanding about the demands of today’s working parents and how sometimes it is impossible to truly separate work and family.
Cynthia Lieberman, a social and media strategist who owns and runs a private consulting firm, said that when her kids were younger, she worked in a high-ranking position for a 50-year-old woman who did not have children.
“On one rare occasion when I had a childcare emergency, she sniffed, ‘That’s why I don’t like having women with children work for me,’” said Lieberman, who is also co-founder of Cyberwise.org, a digital literacy site for adults and children.
“Her ‘coldness’ and discriminatory behavior toward working mothers was a core problem, and I ultimately left a great job for a great company for a more friendly and empathetic environment (and never looked back),” she said.
That said, there are examples of employers who seem to get it.
I remembered an anecdote first lady Michelle Obama likes to share about how she took her then-infant Sasha with her on a job interview with the University of Chicago Medical Center.
She said she was a breastfeeding mother of a 4-month-old who didn’t have a babysitter, so she took Sasha with her.
“I thought, look, this is who I am,” she told attendees at the White House Working Families Summit held in June. “I’ve got a husband who’s away. I’ve got two little babies. They are my priority. If you want me to do the job, you’ve got to pay me to do the job and you’ve got to give me flexibility.”
She ended up getting the job.
Pam Moore, who blogs about motherhood, fitness, home birth and life in Boulder, Colorado, recounted a similar experience. She brought her 4-month-old with her to a work review while still out on maternity leave.
“My supervisor had no problem with it,” said Moore, host of the blog Whatevs. “I even nursed her during our conversation when she started to fuss. If my supervisor was shocked or offended, she did not let on.”
Stacey Ferguson, a former practicing attorney and mother of three, said she almost never brought a child to work and would never have done so if she needed to be in court. (She sympathized with Ehrisman-Mickle but thought she should have found a sitter for her baby or at least someone to watch the infant outside the courtroom until the proceedings were over.)
“I fortunately had a workplace that was family friendly and a boss who was understanding in this regard,” said Ferguson, who is known as Justice Fergie online and is founder of Justice Fergie Lifestyle Media and co-founder of Blogalicious. She was able to telecommute one day a week and work four days per week toward the end of her tenure at her federal agency.
That level of flexibility isn’t available to all parents, but compassion from bosses and colleagues should be a given in the workplace.