In most states, a woman who breastfeeds her child is protected by laws stating that anywhere a mother has a right to be, she has a right to breastfeed. North Carolina is one of those states, and that’s probably why, when Stephanie Rhodus fed her son during a custody hearing, she assumed it wouldn’t be a problem.
Spoiler: It turned out to be a problem.
Judge Peter Knight, who was hearing the case in a Henderson County courthouse, scolded Rhodus for her unabashed use of breasts for their intended purpose before sending her out of the room to make herself decent.
Rhodus was in Knight’s courtroom that day as a defendant, fighting her own mother for custody of her eldest son, who is 8. When her 8-month-old infant son began to fuss, she decided to feed him and let the proceedings continue uninterrupted. That’s when Knight started to get agitated and ultimately demanded that she cover up, chastising her by saying that for her not to know that she needed a cover was “ridiculous,” before ordering her to go outside and button up before they could proceed.
The thing about that, though, is that it’s super-wrong and actually the opposite of what Judge Knight said is true. Because, let’s face it, we expect the odd scandalized sales clerk or fellow diner to not know that the law allows women to breastfeed whenever and wherever they need to — with a cover or without one. We’re chagrined by it, sure, but we sort of expect it. What we don’t expect is for a judge, a person who is tasked with upholding and making very important decisions that align with the law, to not know those things.
Rhodus wasn’t just allowed to be in the courtroom, she was compelled to be, and she doesn’t need to cover up, she needs to feed her kid. For Knight not to know that, well, that’s what’s ridiculous here. Rhodus certainly knew it and said she wanted to stand up for herself and her right to feed her child but felt she couldn’t, describing the judge as “aggressive.”
Courtrooms require a certain level of decorum, and judges are expected to maintain that, but this isn’t a judge telling a defendant to watch their language or kicking someone out for not silencing their cell phone. This is a judge taking a non-issue and turning it into one in a way that flirts with breaking the law. What’s worse is that Rhodus fears Knight made it into a much different issue by the end of the hearing.
Rhodus’ mother succeeded in getting a protective order enacted against her daughter to prevent her from having contact with her older son, and Rhodus claims that the breastfeeding incident colored the judge’s opinion of her, telling WLOS that she intends to appeal the decision.
We really hope that isn’t true — certainly we expect judges to refrain from injecting bias into important decisions like child custody rulings. But then again, we also expect them to have a basic understanding of the laws of their states, particularly as they apply to mothers and particularly if the judge in question is a family court judge.
But we’ve been wrong before.