Stephanie Rhodus was in court on Monday to testify in a custody hearing for her 8-year-old son. She was waiting to be called to the stand when her younger son, 8-month-old Archer, wanted to be fed. She was nursing him when judge Peter Knight called her up, and all was okay for about five minutes.
Then Knight can be heard saying this in an audio recording: “Ma’am, you need to cover up. For you not to realize that is absolutely ridiculous. Step outside, and cover up right now. Stand up, and go, now.” He went on to say that having a child in the courtroom is allowed but nursing is “absolutely inappropriate.” Rhodus apologized and tried to continue. Unsurprisingly, her son was fussy and agitated during the remainder of her testimony.
She told the Washington Post that her son won’t take a bottle and he also doesn’t like being covered when nursing. But the law in North Carolina says this is all fine: Women can breast-feed in any public or private place they’re allowed to be, without covering up.
Rhodus knows this (she breast-fed in the presence of a woman judge last week) but she told ABC News that the judge was “so condescending and so aggressive” that she was too scared to say anything. A legal analyst for ABC pointed out that the judge went too far — he could have simply called a recess.
Rhodus’s mother has custody of her older son and Knight ultimately issued six-month protective order that bars Rhodus from seeing him. Rhodus thinks the episode affected both her testimony and the judge’s decision. “It caught me completely off-guard. I couldn’t think straight to present my case properly,” she told the Post. “It was just — I was in shock.”
Knight issued the following statement to the Washington Post:
“We as a court routinely accommodate women who are nursing, including while they are waiting for a case to be called in the courtroom. However, when a case is called and a party is participating in a formal hearing before the court, all litigants are expected to respect the same rules of procedure, decorum and dress. That was the case here. If breastfeeding accommodations were needed, those certainly would have been made.”
Except they weren’t. Rhodus will be back in court on Tuesday with Archer in tow.