Like many of the one million Americans who go through a divorce each year, Marvin Singer is indignant, depressed, financially stressed and convinced that he is a victim of judicial abuse. Unlike all but a tiny number, Singer, 71, is also in jail. He has been in jail on Long Island since Oct. 24. A name tag identifies him as that rarest of jailbirds: a “civil inmate.” Singer was jailed for refusing a judge's order to pay his ex-wife's lawyer $100,000 – about half of what he owes for her legal representation during their six-year tug-of-war over marital assets.
There is no record of how many people travel a path from divorce court to jail. Administrators of the matrimonial courts in New York and other states track how many divorces are filed, and how many are resolved, but not how many litigants in irreconcilable marriages end up in irreconcilable rows with the judge. Experts on matrimonial law say that such severe penalties are rare, but may be increasing because of the growing complexity of many families' finances, and to frustration among judges at courtroom backlogs made worse by the intransigence of highly emotional adversaries.