You already know Jeff Brandes, the disruptive tech policy iconoclast, and Jeff Brandes, the big cheese in Florida criminal justice reform.
If you’re lucky, as I am, you may also know Jeff Brandes, the good guy and a friend.
But allow me to introduce another angle of this Pinellas powerhouse — the Jeff Brandes who can thread the needle of a policy issue so complex that it has gone without solving for decades: grandparent visitation rights.
I think most would agree that parents should be able to parent their children without interference and that nobody, not even “the in-laws,” should get a lick of a say in a child’s rearing. Grandparents shouldn’t even have the right to call a grandkid to say “happy birthday” if the parent doesn’t want it to happen.
But that’s not what Brandes cares about.
He has a much bigger dog in the fight: how courts approach parent (and grandparent) rights in extraordinary, tragic, and criminal situations — many of which take years to resolve, with children caught in the crosshairs.
Brandes was inspired to tackle this issue by the Dan Markel murder.
There’s plenty written about the case, which has been the feature of international news and popular podcasts. But, for the sake of this column, I’ll recount just the important detail: the two hit men who have been convicted of murdering Markel both point fingers to his ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, and her family as having orchestrated and financed the hit. Authorities contend the murder was motivated by the desire for their two young sons to relocate from Tallahassee and live in Adelson’s sole custody in South Florida.
That’s precisely what happened: Immediately after his murder, Adelson changed the boys’ last name to her own and moved them to South Florida, where her family has unrestricted access to them. They haven’t been charged, but the case is still open.
Meanwhile, Markel’s parents are estranged — cut off from all forms of contact. No birthday calls. Adelson says she keeps them apart for the children’s “safety.”
Does this sound right? No. But does Florida law allow it? Entirely.
Florida law only allows grandparents to petition courts for visitation if the living parent has been convicted of a felony. Once they petition, the courts then consider myriad factors in determining what’s best for the children.
They generally rule on the side of parents.
But in this case, the Markels can’t even go to court. They can’t even say, “Hey! Wait a second … this case is a little different.”
Why? Because Adelson has no felony convictions, despite what observers or “web sleuths” hypothesize are multiple crimes committed (such as perjury on the stand, hiding of finances in divorce proceedings, and accessory to murder after-the-fact, if not also beforehand.)
In any case, the Markels and other families facing similar, depraved tragedies, have no access to Florida courts. The grandchildren are essentially kidnapped — by the legal system.
That’s where Brandes — in prime Brandes fashion — had his own “Hey! Wait a second …” moment: this isn’t really about grandparents, this is about access to courts and victim rights.
The Florida Constitution makes it clear in Section 21: “The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury” and then drills down further with the addition of Marcy’s law, making clear that the parents and children of murder victims are themselves victims and have injuries to redress.
SB 1886 is written to allow just that: grandparents of children in cases where one parent was murdered and the other parent (or caretakers) are named by the state attorney’s office as persons of interest in that murder — are allowed a minute in court.
There’s an additional layer of irony to this case. In her professional life, Wendi Adelson advocates for the reunification of immigrant families at the border. The government she condemns for enforcing separation at the U.S. border is the same government she relies on to protect the separation she has created in her own family.
Because of Jeff Brandes, Florida government is taking another look.
Perhaps — and I do not say this lightly — the simple ability for courts to even consider such cases could deter other families from considering murder as a way to gain total control over children.
It’s a brave, incisive angle that Brandes has taken … but I guess I should know by now, that’s just how he rolls.