A domestic-relations jurist in Howard County is drawing criticism from lawyers who say she discriminates against husbands and fathers in divorce and child-custody cases.
Nancy L. Haslinger is one of two domestic-relations masters in the Howard County Circuit Court who handle about 2,000 domestic and juvenile cases a year.
"Her disposition and point of view is that a man is incapable of raising a child," said Joseph Fleischmann II, a lawyer in Ellicott City and one of the few people willing to talk on the record.
Female attorneys who have represented male clients in Mrs. Haslinger's court are criticizing the domestic-relations master, too.
"Some women attorneys [also] will not take men clients into her court," said one female lawyer. Another said women lawyers have chosen to represent only female clients before Mrs. Haslinger.
A 1986 graduate of the University of Baltimore's law school, Mrs. Haslinger, 55, practiced domestic law until her business partner died and the four Circuit Court judges selected her as master of chancery in 1994.
A master is an officer of the court who is assigned cases for adjudication and has limited judicial authority.
News reports published at the time of her appointment state she had been a psychiatric social worker and legislative aide and was selected from 60 applicants. The reports also stated she was the first woman to be appointed to the Howard County judiciary.
"I don't think I'll be biased in one direction or the other," she was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying at the time of her appointment.
Some lawyers now disagree.
"There is absolutely no question that she is biased," said Allen Kruger, 57, a lawyer in Laurel in Prince George's County. "My experience is that she clearly favors women in custodial disputes and that she clearly does not favor joint or shared physical custody."
However, Mr. Kruger said Mrs. Haslinger was "competent in all other aspects."
"Her reputation until two or three years ago was certainly that," said another attorney. "I've noticed a major change in recent years."
Despite such criticism, Mrs. Haslinger has supporters.
"She listens to all carefully and makes well-reasoned decisions," said Harry Siegel, 39, a lawyer for 14 years.
Mr. Siegel said Mrs. Haslinger also asks good questions and is an attentive listener. "She's in the vast minority to do that," he said.
Another lawyer said Mrs. Haslinger's ire is directed at those who fail to pay child support and illegally take custody of children, not necessarily at men.
Mrs. Haslinger did not respond to several attempts to contact her, including phone calls and visits to her chambers and courtroom.
The 426 members of the Howard County Bar Association cannot discuss complaints, said spokeswoman Kim Wharton. However, she said complaints are referred to the Attorneys Grievance Commission, which said it had received no complaints about Mrs. Haslinger.
Mr. Siegel said complaints were made about masters and judges at a recent forum of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, but none were about Mrs. Haslinger.
However, Craig Deanto, an electronics engineer from Columbia, Md., was so upset about his 1997 case in front of Mrs. Haslinger that he wrote a song about it.
Mr. Deanto, 49, sang the song "Who Hears the Cries" during a demonstration by parents in front of the White House and said it is on a CD produced by Walter "Clyde" Orange, a Grammy Award winner and member of the Commodores.
"It was the horrendous experience that I encountered in the court of Nancy Haslinger that led to my writing this song," he said. "Hearings? It's like a kangaroo court."
Mr. Deanto said Mrs. Haslinger disregarded a deposition in which his former wife admitted to adultery, child abduction and child neglect.
Near the end of the hearings, according to transcripts, Mrs. Haslinger posed a lengthy series of questions to Mr. Deanto but asked only two questions of the wife: "How often did he fix dinner for you?" and "Over the course of the marriage, how often did he do your laundry?"
David S. Rubin, 50, said his problems with Mrs. Haslinger started before he even entered her courtroom.
He said when starting divorce-custody proceedings in 1998, seven of the 10 lawyers he interviewed told him that Mrs. Haslinger was "extremely prejudiced against men, and several advised me that it might be better to just give up our children to my ex-wife immediately, quickly settle on whatever money she wanted and end the case before it ever reached court with Nancy Haslinger presiding."
Mr. Rubin, the founder and executive of a corporate recruiting firm, also said Mrs. Haslinger ordered him to pay so much child support and alimony that he fell into arrears and was eventually put in jail. He said the 4-year episode also ruined his business and has cost him about $1 million.
The Rubin custody fight in court continues.
For more than three months, the twins, a boy and girl, and another daughter have been living with their mother in a one-room motel in Easton in Talbot County, which, Mr. Rubin says, makes it virtually impossible to maintain his share of their custody.
Michael Coslett, an employee of Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts, said Mrs. Haslinger took his children from him during a 1996 divorce proceeding without even speaking with them.
"Both were given to their mother," said Mr. Coslett, 45.
The children ran away to his house and he was back in court before a Circuit judge, who remanded the children to him.
"It's cost a ton," Mr. Coslett said.
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