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Starry Decisis: The Ex Files

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Cynics of the world will not be surprised to find out that divorce became a whole lot easier thanks to a Los Angeles case. Citizens of this city of exes have a bad rap for treating marriage like, well, a bad wrap – chucking it easily into the nearest trash can. Yet, the legal decision that makes divorce doable evinces nothing but the highest respect for institution of marriage. It’s a case worth revisiting, especially before the new season of Desperate Housewives begins.

The early 1950s brought attention to the power of American judges. Brown v. Board showed the country just how much courts could do to bring society belatedly into the 20th century, one schoolchild at a time. Out West, our own California Supreme Court was working a legal revolution of its own, led by the pioneering work of Judge Roger Traynor. Supreme Court decisions affect all Americans in highly visible ways. Yet it’s Traynor’s decisions on the California Supreme Court that are more likely to affect our day-to-day lives since they involve state law. Among the most important issues left for states to decide is how, when and why to allow divorce.

The divorce before the court, 1952’s De Burgh v. De Burgh, like many divorces, was an ugly one. Daisy De Burgh wanted to split from her husband Alfred, a drunk who beat her, bragged about his affairs, and refused to give her money even as he spent it recklessly himself. Alfred asserted a defense that Daisy had treated him just as badly: she wrote a letter to his business partner stating that Alfred was gay. This, he argued, was an attempt to ruin his business life. Daisy’s bad acts, Alfred claimed, negated her suit for divorce. The trial judge, in the Los Angeles Superior Court, agreed that the marriage was beyond repair but held that neither Daisy nor Alfred was entitled to a divorce.