Dad Questions Judge's Role In Child Abduction Case
Williamson County Judge Jim Martin
Christopher Savoie, with Isaac and Rebecca
There are serious questions about a Williamson County judge's involvement in a child custody case -- a case that ended up with two children being abducted to Japan.
The judge insists he didn't violate any rules.
But the father of the two children says the judge made a messy case even messier.
And, as our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams discovered, the judge himself had worried about whether he should be making the calls.
"It is like field of dreams -- you expect a ghost to show up," said Christopher Savoie, sitting at a local baseball park where he says he is haunted by what he's lost.
He pulled a Little League baseball cap out of a bag. "There's his hat right there. I just miss him."
What he's lost is time with his 8-year-old, baseball-loving son Isaac and 6-year-old daughter Rebecca.
"This is her little Dora ball," Christopher said, pulling out a smaller, multi-colored ball and glove. "She always wanted to do like big brother. She was saying, 'Well, I want to play baseball too.'"
And despite all that Christopher had tried to teach his kids about respecting the umpires, he believes a bad call by a Williamson County judge let his ex-wife, Noriko Savoie, abduct them to Japan, out of the reach of American law.
"I'll never be on the ball field again," he said, fighting back tears. "You know, the one thing that you can't ever get back. You know, they could give me money. They could give me anything. But they can't take back time."
That judge, Jim Martin, refused Christopher's emergency request to keep Noriko from taking the children out of the country.
That despite the fact that a transcript from the hearing shows Noriko had balked when social workers asked her, "Are you planning on moving to Japan with the children this summer?"
"It was a direct question: "Do you intend to live here, do you want to live here in Tennessee?'" Christopher remembered. "Her answer was, it was deflected. I remember she said, 'I think that the kids will be happy if I'm happy.' She couldn't answer yes or no."
Judge Martin dismissed Noriko's threats as just being the outbursts of an emotionally stressed woman.
But get this: Martin was not even the judge assigned to the Savoies' case.
As a private lawyer, Martin had helped work out the divorce agreement during hours and hours of private negotiations between Christopher and Noriko. So, when the judge assigned to their case got tied up with another matter, Martin volunteered to hear the dispute.
"To some extent, the judge is compromised if somebody judges after being a mediator," said Vanderbilt law professor Susan Kay.
Kay couldn't comment on the Savoie case, but she says there's a good reason that mediators are discouraged from later serving as judges on cases they've helped negotiate.
"The mediator asks the parties to tell the mediator information that may or may not be admissible in a court, that they may or may not want the other side to know."
Christopher Savoie said that concerned him too.
"Mediation is not done under oath," he explained. "I have no idea what she was telling him in that other room. It wasn't under oath. It wasn't in writing. I have no idea what he thinks of me."
In fact, the transcript shows that Martin himself first said he didn't know the "ethical constraints" of his judging the case.
But later he added, "This is highlighting why the Court shouldn't necessarily try cases [in which] it was a mediator -- because I bring to this case a huge bank of knowledge regarding the background of both of these parties."
Susan Kay said, "Much of the rules of ethics are based upon the idea that there should be not only fairness, but the appearance of fairness."
Back at the baseball park, Christopher found a comparison between his case and the baseball games his children played.
"If you have a really bad flu and a headache, you probably shouldn't be behind the plate calling balls and strikes -- that's the way I view it," he said.
"And he was?" Williams asked.
"And he was."
At the time, his attorney had not objected to Martin's involvement.
But after Christopher hired a new lawyer, Martin agreed to step aside. Still, he left intact his order that eventually allowed Noriko to take the children to Japan.
"Next week, I won't be playing ball with them," Christopher said. "I won't be playing catch with him. Just won't. That week will never happen again."
Now, Christopher can only wonder what would have happened if, by his way of thinking, the judge himself had played by the rules.
"I may never see my kids again. He was playing with my kids lives."
In the judge's order, he specifically said that -- despite her threats -- Noriko Savoie would be allowed to take the children to Japan for vacation.
She went, came back briefly and then, with their passports still in hand, she abducted them back to Japan.
The ex-wife's lawyer argues that Christopher shares some responsibility here. She says he had the chance to object to Judge Martin's involvement.
But his new lawyer says, under the rules for mediators, Martin should never have put the Savoies in that situation.
The ex-wife's lawyer also says Christopher gave up fighting to keep Noriko from leaving the country.
But he says he was told by another mediator that he'd already lost that battle before Judge Martin.