Court may decide Mel Gibson’s future as a father and star

LOS ANGELES—Mel Gibson and his ex-girlfriend, model-entertainer Oksana Grigorieva resumed their public fight over their year-old daughter Lucia behind the closed doors of a family courtroom on Monday.

Judge Scott M. Gordon of Los Angeles County Superior Court is expected to decide by early next year who should have custody of Lucia, how many nights each parent may spend with her, how the visits will be monitored and whether Gibson’s current support payments of $20,000 (U.S.) a month are enough.

To answer those questions, however, the judge is being pressed to address a wide range of claims that touch on the fitness of both Grigorieva and Gibson, who in addition to his daughter Lucia has seven children with his wife, Robyn (who filed for divorce last year).

The judge might also help determine whether Gibson has a future in Hollywood.

Gibson’s and Grigorieva’s have now squared off in the family law corner, a semi-private forum that is being asked to settle a very public dispute. And their battle royal promises to define not just their parental rights, but also the reputation of each, their possible exposure to prosecution — he on a battering complaint, she on an extortion accusation — and the limits to which a judicial system can be stretched to accommodate that ever-expanding beast, celebrity.

And for the public those claims have been complicated by the memory of Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant upon being charged with drunken driving in 2006.

What impact this will have on Gibson’s career — he was recently dumped from a cameo in The Hangover: Part 2 — isn’t clear.

“What happens in family court will certainly affect Mel’s personal life,” said Lindsay Conner, a partner in the entertainment division of the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which does not represent Gibson. “But absent some truly startling revelation, I don’t believe it will change his overall marketability.”

Even a city that saw O.J. Simpson acquitted of murder has marvelled at the Gibson-Grigorieva fight.

“This is as much about celebrity obsession and a culture of WikiLeaks as it is about the core issues involved,” said Scott A. Altman, the vice dean of the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law and a family law expert.

Only 10 days ago blew a hole in the confidentiality that normally surrounds custody cases, which are placed on the court calendar anonymously and argued behind closed doors, to protect minor children. On Nov. 12 TMZ, the celebrity news service, began posting photographs and documents from the closed file, including intimate emails from Grigorieva to Gibson and a statement from their daughter’s pediatrician.

At a hastily convened hearing that afternoon, Gordon told lawyers for the parties and for TMZ that the leak, which is being investigated by the court’s security apparatus, might involve criminal behaviour. But the posts have continued — complete with photos of Grigorieva’s broken teeth and a declaration by Gibson that he slapped her only in trying to end one of her fits.

Blair Berk, one of several lawyers who represent Gibson, declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality requirements. Martin Garbus, one of several lawyers for Grigorieva, said the pair’s daughter, Lucia, was the only real concern. “The issue,” Garbus said, “is, I think, in five words: What’s best for the child?”

The family law case has been criss-crossed by issues that touch on a pair of criminal investigations triggered after Grigorieva said that Gibson punched and choked her and brandished a gun in the course of a Jan. 6 blow-up at his home.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has yet to decide whether to prosecute Gibson in that incident. It is awaiting the results of a separate sheriff’s investigation into Gibson’s contention that Grigorieva committed extortion by threatening to go public with embarrassing recordings if he did not meet her terms.

Gibson has invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination in some aspects of his testimony before the family court, but the court has limited Grigorieva’s reliance on incidents — including the Jan. 6 encounter — that occurred before she negotiated an agreement, now seemingly defunct, with Gibson in May, according to people who were briefed on the case but did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the proceedings.

Meanwhile lawyers for Gibson have pointed in court to Grigorieva’s public statements about Gibson’s parental fitness as media-hungry behaviour that reveals deficiencies in her own, and as a reason to award him custody.

In a recent interview with Larry King on CNN, Grigorieva talked at length about what she described as life-threatening encounters with Gibson. Asked why she recorded him, she said, “I wanted my mother to be able to prove that if I’m dead, that this is who did it.”

Daniel Horowitz, a lawyer for Grigorieva, said Gibson’s team had demanded that he provide testimony and documents about his contacts with the news media, something he said he did not intend to do, even at the risk of going to jail. “If that happens, there are no limits,” Horowitz said of the insistence on a review of his news-media moments.

Altman said Gordon, as a family law judge, must decide not just what Gibson and Grigorieva have done in the past, but what they are likely to do in the years to come.

“Where children are concerned, family law is forward-looking and predictive,” Altman said.

Typically, he added, that determination will involve a number of expert witnesses.

They will be called on to determine whether Gibson is good enough to spend time with Lucia — and indirectly, perhaps, whether he is good enough to entertain the rest of us.

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