A Look Inside Family Court
Tim Philpot, a circuit judge in family court in Lexington, Kentucky, reveals what it's like to be a judge, presiding where nearly 90% of cases involve unmarried couples. Philpot, who asked the Lord to put him in the middle of the mess, tells why he is more pro-marriage than ever.
About the Guest
Tim Philpot, a circuit judge in family court in Lexington, KY, reveals what it’s like to be a judge, presiding where nearly 90% of cases involve unmarried couples.
A Look Inside Family Court
Bob: Tim Philpot is a judge in Kentucky. He presides over disputes that happen in families—he’s a family court judge.
Tim: Family court is something kind of new—a special court just for family—if you think about the greatest oxymoron, perhaps, in the history of the world—think about it—family court. Approximately half of all the litigation in Kentucky has to do with families. We’ve messed up family so much that we now need special courts.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today from Tim Philpot about what it’s like to hear domestic disputes trying to be settled in a court of law, day in and day out. It’s tough. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I was a little surprised. I thought you said we would never have a Kentucky Wildcat on FamilyLife Today. Wasn’t that what you said back when we got started?
Dennis: Did I really say that?
Bob: “No Wildcat,”—that’s what I thought. [Laughter]
Dennis: I’ve been to Rupp Arena and followed my team there. It was one of the most embarrassing—
Dennis: —40 minutes of execution that I’ve ever seen in all my life.
Bob: —or lack of execution.
Dennis: They spanked us! It was absolutely horrific.
But we decided to open our doors of grace, here at FamilyLife Today, and invite a Kentucky Wildcat. Tim Philpot joins us on the broadcast. Tim, welcome to Hog-land. [Laughter]
Tim: Dennis, thank you / thank you. You’re welcome back to Rupp Arena any time.
Dennis: I’ll be happy to go back there, but I want to have a team the next time we go back there; because we didn’t the last time I went there.
Tim is going to be one of the first—maybe, the first judge that we’ve ever had, here on FamilyLife Today.
Bob: I cannot think of another judge. In fact, I kind of wondered—and you can ask Tim about this—but I didn’t think you guys were allowed to talk about what goes on in the courtroom. I thought this was—you know—you kind of had to—I’m thinking about the Supreme Court justices. They’re supposed to keep their mouths shut; of course, they don’t anymore, so—
Tim: Right. No; we can talk—there’s nothing that stops us from talking. My book is fiction—so that helps a little bit. Of course, it’s based on reality in many ways; but we’re free to talk.
Dennis: Well, Tim married Susan back in 1971. He’s a little bit ahead of Barbara and me in terms of number of years married. He is the judge of Fayette Circuit County Court. Is that in Lexington proper?
Tim: Right. I’m a circuit judge in family court—is the way that we say. And we live in Fayette County, which is Lexington, Kentucky.
Dennis: He has quite a background here.
He has spoken in over 66 countries; he is the former president of Christian Businessmen’s Committee International; and has written a book called Judge Z: Irretrievably Broken. It’s a novel about a judge in a family court and the death of marriage in America.
The first place I want to begin is really kind of where you start in the book. You actually take us to a term I’d never heard of, called “Motion Hour.”
Dennis: Motion Hour. I want to read this, and then I want you to explain to our listeners what motion hour is; but this just kind of sets the table for how interesting your court must be: “If television had not been invented, Motion Hour would be the greatest show in town. It would be Lexington, Kentucky’s, version of the Coliseum, with crowds gathered to watch mortal combat.
“Judge Z would be as well-known as Judge Judy. Instead, he was just another judge in another courtroom on another crazy Friday morning in family court.”
So what is Motion Hour?
Tim: Well, in family court, there are six or seven different parts to it. Anything that feels like family is what we do—that includes all domestic violence cases; it includes what we call DNA court, which is dependency, neglect, and abuse cases, which are the horrific stuff—where we’re taking children away from their parents, putting them with relatives or foster care. Of course, it’s also all the divorce cases, and all the custody and time-sharing. I say custody and time-sharing because about 80 to 90 percent of the cases are actually—even with children—are for couples that are not married.
Just your pure divorce case, even, is almost kind of rare now in family court.
This Motion Hour has always been interesting; because once a week, if you want something in your case—a lawyer wants to kick somebody out of a house, or has child support / somebody’s not doing what they’re supposed to do—you file a motion. You notice the motion for a certain time and place, and it’s always the same time and place every single week. Once a week, all the lawyers in town show up. When the judge walks in, which is me, there are over a hundred people in the courtroom waiting on their case to be heard.
Dennis: And you say it has to be a pretty good-sized room because you have to be able to split—
Tim: Yes; we have extra sheriffs there, because this is family court. Believe it or not, I think family court has more emotion and potential for difficulty than even criminal court does.
Dennis: You’ve been on the bench 12 years.
Dennis: And you’ve seen a lot of stuff come through, but you just said something under your breath—you just kind of sped by it and through it—that I want to unpack here for a second.
You said, “We don’t see nearly as many divorce cases in the courtroom as we used to.” What’s with that?
Tim: Nobody gets married—I mean, it’s only a slight exaggeration. The things that happen in family court—domestic violence, neglect and abuse of children, child support, paying for those children, paternity / figuring out who the father is—those are all things that have absolutely nothing to do with marriage. We have a whole generation of people now—younger people and even some older people by now—who don’t have any sense that marriage is part of this whole thing.
All the legal rights that people have, unmarried, are really the same as married. Marriage is, legally, virtually irrelevant anymore. It doesn’t matter if you’re married or not—you’re still going to get the same basic rights to child support / the same basic rights to time-sharing with your children. Being married—that piece of paper called marriage is virtually irrelevant.
Dennis: Does that really trouble you, as a judge, and as someone looking out for your country?
Tim: Well, it does. That’s why I started to write the book. I was in practice law for a long time. I was in the state senate for eight years, and I had an opportunity to go into full-time ministry with this CBMC International. I thought this would be fantastic / I really thought I would do it forever; but after seven years of that, I realized that it was time for me to go back to my real life, which was my legal career.
I literally wrote in my journal, as I was in the process of going back to Lexington and going back to my legal career, I asked the Lord “to put me in the middle of the mess.” When I wrote those words, I’d never even heard of family court; because family court is something kind of new. It came in about 2001/2002 in Kentucky—a special court just for family. If you think about the greatest oxymoron—perhaps, in the history of the world—think about it—family court.
“God puts the lonely in families,” Psalm 68 says. But we’ve messed up family so much that we now need special courts. Approximately half of all the litigation in Kentucky has to do with families.
Dennis: One half of all litigation—
Bob: —are family disputes.
Dennis: You’re talking about all the corporations?
Bob: —criminal, civil.
Bob: It’s family.
Tim: Right. We have nine circuit judges in Lexington that deal with all the legal issues in Fayette County, Kentucky. Four of the nine do nothing but family—so that’s 44 percent—but I can tell you—I think our family court judges are busier than the other judges; so I’m rounding it off and saying approximately half of all the legal disputes that are going on are inside the family.
When I said, “Lord, put me in the middle of the mess,”—it’s a long story, and the details don’t matter—but He put me in family court. I was appointed to be a judge in family court in January of 2004, about three months after I’d written that in my journal.
Here I am, in the middle of family court. I finally got so frustrated—that’s not, maybe, the perfect word—but so disappointed, I suppose, in the fact that marriage seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth, that I decided to write a book about marriage, trying to establish, “What is marriage, and why is it important?”
Dennis: You actually have a sentence in the book that just stopped me. You said that the state of Kentucky didn’t have the definition of what a marriage was until 1998.
Tim: Right. I don’t think any state did—probably, because—we didn’t have definitions before for the same reason you don’t define “red” in a statute / you don’t define “blue” in a statute.
Dennis: It’s a given.
Tim: We know what it is.
Tim: We thought we knew what marriage was—there was no reason to define it—but then everybody got worried on the same-sex issue; and therefore we said, “Well, we need to define it as being between a man and a woman.”
So we did do that. But once you get past “a man and a woman,” we really didn’t know what it was; and we still don’t know exactly what it is. If you look at the definition in all 50 states, it’s the same. It’ll say something that really makes no sense at all. It’s the kind of words that would never be repeated at a wedding. It talks about the civil status, and it’s just a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo. People laugh when I read it.
The Lord was good, though—He put me in the middle of this mess. As I say very often, the greatest tragedy in the world is not that gay people want to get married—the greatest tragedy is that straight people don’t want to get married.
Bob: When did it start to dawn on you, “This really is a pivotal issue for us as a civilization”? Did you realize that from the start, or did that become a growing awareness for you?
Tim: Very much definitely a growing awareness.
I would say that my life has been completely turned upside-down and transformed over the last four or five years. It started with some spiritual transformation inside of me. What happened is that, when I became a judge, I did get a better picture of God than I’d ever had before. I now have a whole sermon I can preach on the three main images of God: God is your judge, first of all, which is where most people start. He’s the judge who, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, has declared that you’re free if you just believe and “trust in Me.” The problem with the judge image is that, when the judge says you’re free, he then says, “You’re free to go.”
Tim: So you walk out, and you do not get to know the judge. If I know somebody, personally, I’m not allowed to be their judge. I’m convinced that most people who go to church and call themselves Christians only know this God, who is their judge, which means they don’t really know Him at all.
So there’s a second metaphor that’s better; and that’s the metaphor of God as your Father.
It brings family into the picture—a much better image. In fact, it’s quite interesting— isn’t it?—that in the Book of Genesis, there was no law. There was no law in the Book of Genesis. The Ten Commandments came later. Genesis is a family story.
In fact, Noah is kind of the hero of my book—I thought I’d just throw that out for somebody who wants to buy the book and figure out what that means. Hebrews 11:7 has become perhaps my favorite verse, at least this year. It says that “Noah, in holy fear, built an ark to save his family,”—just that simple. So I love to say to people, “I don’t know what that looks like for you, but you need to build an ark to save your family.” I think I’ve concluded that the holiest, most wonderful thing anybody can do is do whatever it takes—build an ark—to save your family. That’s just a key.
So this family idea, built into the idea that God is your Father, is way better than God as your judge. But even then, it has its downside; because many people have bad fathers / many people have no fathers—so even that image is nonsensical to a lot of folks.
But there’s a third image that I’d never thought about until I became a judge—never even had this thought in my life—which is simply that God is my husband / God is my lover. It’s the whole nuptial idea of our relationship with God, which takes it to a whole level of intimacy that I had never experienced in my life, really, until the last five years.
I’m 65 years old. I met Christ as my Savior when I was a freshman in college. I’ve served Him, I’ve followed Him, I’ve left my profession to be in full-time ministry a couple of times, I’ve led lots of people to Christ and done a lot of good things, I suppose. But I think, for about 40 years, my level of intimacy with Christ has just been something I knew was not quite there / what I wanted.
I didn’t understand what love is. I think I’m finally starting to figure it out. I tell people, “My book is not really about marriage, or divorce, or family; at the end of the day, my book really is about Love, with a big capital ‘L.’”
Dennis: Now, what you just said is pretty profound. I mean, you’ve been around for a while—four decades of being in various kinds of ministry—but to say that the discovery of God, as the lover of your soul, transformed your life—
Tim: Yes; yes.
Dennis: —so, do your best to explain to our listeners the essence of what has captured your heart.
Tim: Well, people ask me if the stories in my book are true. I smile, and look at everybody, and wink, and say, “It is fiction.” But I say: “I will admit that one story in the book is true. It’s where I take the judge in the book on a trip to India,”—very much a true story for me / happened about five years ago. I was invited to go and participate in a wedding there.
I had boycotted weddings for many years. I’ve always said: “I hate weddings, because they’re usually on Saturday when I want to play golf. Plus, I end up crying at the wedding; and I hate to cry, and I like to play golf, so I don’t go to weddings.” I did not go to weddings for about 20 years. [Laughter] I got convicted, though, when I started thinking all these thoughts—I decided, “I need to go when I’m invited to a wedding.”
A dear friend in India said, “Please come,” so I did. It was wonderful; but on the Sunday morning, after the wedding, I found myself at a little country church in India—a little nowhere place. There were about 50/60 people there. There were some children there, who were HIV positive, from a little group home. There were a few couples from the village, and there were some destitute women. I call them destitute women—they were about seven or eight ladies, who live in a home there, who’d been kicked out by their families. They were all either HIV positive, blind, otherwise—as poor as you can get.
I was told to preach a little sermon. I was about 15 minutes into a pitiful sermon when one of the ladies from the back, who was HIV positive and destitute—she just came down, because she was tired of hearing me talk. She was ready for me to pray for her. The lady that was interpreting for me—she told me the lady wanted me to pray for her. I kind of wrapped up my sermon, because I could tell nobody was paying much attention anyway. I went to the back. These ladies took their shawl, and they pulled them up over their head, which is what they do in India.
They expected me, because I was this guy from America—and they presumed I was some kind of preacher—you know, I just wanted to say: “You don’t understand. I’m a lawyer / I’m a judge. You don’t want me praying for you!” [Laughter] “I’m the guy that signs divorce papers every day. I’m the guy that takes children away from their parents. I’m not this holy man you think I am.”
I laid my hands on the first lady and I began to pray for her, and didn’t know what to say—I said: “Lord, this lady loves You. Bless her. I don’t know what she needs today, but be with her,”—typical American kind of stupid prayer. My interpreter wandered away to take care of some kids. I was left alone with these women. By the fourth lady, I found myself—I could not pray for the ladies anymore / I heard myself praying for me. I was saying: “Dear Lord, this lady loves You. This lady has something that I don’t have. Would You please give me just a little bit of whatever she has?” I began to weep, and they didn’t even know anything was happening to me.
I describe that really as the day when my heart began to change, because the Lord answered that prayer. I began to understand love. I felt love, but it was more than a feeling.
Everything I read in the Bible / everything I read, as I was studying marriage and trying to figure out, “What is marriage?” began to make more sense to me.
I developed this love relationship with God over the last four or five years. Part of it was researching/writing this book; but it all started, right there, with those little ladies in India. They can’t read or write / they don’t read the Bible like we do; but they know God, and they love God, and they know that they know His love. I learned a lot from some little ladies in India, who don’t even know they’ve taught me anything.
Dennis: I have to believe there is more than one listener, right now, who is just introspecting, going, “I wonder if I have a relationship with God like those ladies have?” It’s tough to maintain that kind of relationship in such a culture of affluence, with so many choices and so many distractions.
Tim: It is.
Dennis: But, Tim, I’d like you to pray, here, for that listener.
Dennis: Maybe they don’t know God—maybe, it’s just that story and what you’ve kind of explained—that the Judge wants to become your Father / then, He wants to start a lifetime love relationship with you. There’s somebody listening who doesn’t know how that begins. Would you pray for them as they place their faith in Christ to begin that journey?
Tim: I’d love to do that / let me do that. Let me say, before I do that, that this way of thinking has changed the way that I do evangelism. I mean, it’s changed the way that I talk to people.
John the Baptist—they asked him, “Are you the Messiah? Who are you, exactly?” He says, “I’m just the best man at a wedding.” He didn’t say, “I’m some crazy guy out here.” He didn’t say, “I’m a prophet,” or “I’m the guy that baptizes everybody.” He says: “I’m just the best man at a wedding. The groom is here.”
This family picture—Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding in Cana of Galilee / John 2—John the Baptist in John 3. You get all the way through, really, the entire Bible, and it’s just one big love story—one big wedding / one big marriage between God Himself and us. My prayer will be for anybody, who’s listening, that kind of knows God as Judge or knows Him as even a Father, that they will be able to begin to understand that God really is their Lover.
Let me pray:
Lord, we thank You that our life with You is a journey. There are things at 65 that we can understand that we didn’t seem to be able to understand when we were 25 or 35. So I thank You, Lord, for the journey. I know there are some things when I’m 85 that I may understand that I’m clueless on today.
I know that our country is full of men and women, who have trusted You as their Savior, but they’re still trying to find out what a love relationship with You really looks like.
Lord, it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle of opening our hearts, as well as our minds, to the possibility that Jesus Christ could be our husband/ that Jesus Christ could be our bridegroom—that Jesus Christ could be our Lover.
I pray for that miracle to happen in the hearts of men and women, who have been good at keeping the rules, who have been good at following You into their life’s profession and journeys, who have been, in many cases, good parents and been good, faithful church members and Sunday school teachers. But Lord Jesus, they don’t really know what it feels like to completely know Your love and to know what it means to love You.
So I pray for them, Lord. Open their hearts. Give them faith to believe that this can happen.
In Jesus’ name, amen.
Bob: Tim, thank you.
I want to encourage our listeners to get a copy of your book, which is called Judge Z: Irretrievably Broken. It’s a novel, but if offers a lot of insight—very compelling story to read as Tim reflects on his own work, as a family court judge, over the last decade plus. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to find out more about the book, Judge Z: Irretrievably Broken, by Tim Philpot. You can order from us online, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY for more information about how to get a copy of Tim’s book.
You know, what we do here, at FamilyLife, is really designed to keep people from winding up in front of a judge, like Judge Philpot. Our goal, here at FamilyLife, is to effectively develop godly marriages and families, where couples thrive / where children flourish.
We want to point people back to what God’s Word has to say about how we’re to live our lives in a marriage and family relationship, because it’s in that foundation that marriage and families do indeed thrive.
I just want to say a word of “Thank you,” to those of you who listen regularly—but to those of you who support this ministry, especially our Legacy Partners, who are monthly supporters of FamilyLife Today—we so appreciate you joining with us so that, together, we can reach couples and families all around the world and help strengthen them to help more couples celebrate more anniversaries for more years. Thanks for your partnership with us in this endeavor.
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You can do that online at FamilyLifeToday.com; you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate; or you can mail your donation and request “The Twelve Names of Christmas.” Send your note today to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
We’ll hear more from Tim Philpot tomorrow as we talk about what life is like as a family court judge. I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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