What It's Like to Be a Judge
By Jennifer Jackson, JD (Family Law News, Judicial Survey, Vol. 17, No. 2)
Los Angeles County: The Hon. Martha Goldin
San Luis Obispo County: The Hon. Harry E. Woolpert
"If I had me job to pick out" said Mr. Dooley,"I'd be a judge. I've looked over all th' others an that's the on'y wan that suits. I have th' judicyal timperamint. I hate wurruk." Finley Peter Dunne Observations by Mr. Dooley: The Law's Delays, 1906.
Have you ever wanted to be a judge? Do you think it might be less work? Less stress? What is it really like to be a family law judge? Let's hear from the judges:
How did you end up on the family law bench?
Los Angeles: I backed into it. I had never had any experience with family law. As a lawyer, I did principally appellate work, a lot of criminal appeals, some labor, some eclectic constitutional issues. I was not at all sorry to leave private practice. I was never thrilled being a litigator, and I didn't mind leaving all the problems of a small business behind.
I became a municipal court judge in July, 1980. My assignment was to a misdemeanor trial court. When I became a superior court judge in February, 1982, I was first assigned to a juvenile court - hearing nothing but delinquency cases. Then I was introduced to the pleasures of a civil trial department, law and motions and eventually probate. By then I knew which assignments I didn't want; family law was unfamiliar, but sounded marginally acceptable. I took over a family law courtroom in January, 1991, and have been in family law, by choice, ever since.
San Luis Obispo: I began practicing family law in January, 1963, and then took the family law bench in February, 1976. I did mostly family law for about six years. I then rotated out of the assignment and did a mixture of trial work.
It was "my year" to take family law again about four years ago. I was going to give it a three year shot, which was about how long we thought it would take to rewrite and implement our family law rules. I enlisted for another year for 94, and what I do at the end of 94 will depend on what other judges want to do too.
I enjoyed private practice, and I enjoy being a judge. The family law portion of my practice was stressful, of course, but I love courtrooms, and nothing on the civil law side gets you into court as much as family law. It's theater; I love it.
I miss the sense of winning, but one of the nice things about going on the bench is not having to explain my losses to my clients: "How could that crazy son of a bitch have made that ruling?" Now I'm that crazy son of a bitch.
How do you go about making a decision?
San Luis Obispo: This is the only "un-fun" part. I've now been a trial judge for over 18 years, and I've developed a basic strategy of ruling.
I listen pretty attentively. Judges make their living by listening, and lawyers could probably improve their practices by becoming better at it.
I make notes. How thorough they are depends on the length and complexity of the case.
I rule quickly. In most trials, I rule either at the end of evidence or at the end of argument. I keep a list of all the property on a form that I have, making my calls as we go along: whether it is community, separate, who wants it, what she says its worth, what he says its worth.
I always do an oral statement of decision on the record, because people are entitled to an explanation. I also give them an opportunity to request a further statement of decision, and then proceed under Code of Civil Procedure §632. If the attorneys have turned up something that bothers me, or that I have overlooked, I'll set it for hearing.
I rarely take cases under submission. This is a killer. A bad quick decision is often better than a slow "just" decision. When I do submit, it's frequently the attorney fee issue; the attorneys don't have their declarations filed or we need to give the other side a chance to respond to something. Every so often there is some complicated legal issue I don't understand and either need a little briefing on an issue, or some time to think about it.
When I have a really difficult decision, I wait for a weekend or holiday, and I'll come down, pick up the file, get out the exhibits, my trial notes, and the briefs, and start in on it. My subconscious takes care of a lot of it. Every so often you find yourself hoping, rather than convinced, you are right.
Judges are the best machines we have for discerning truth. We are trained and educated in decision-making, and after listening to thousands of witnesses, we get fooled less and less. But, the system ain't perfect. Every so often I'll get a bad result.
A good decision is one in which I'm at least able to indicate to the parties the relevant testimony that persuaded me, the rules I think are applicable, and where I came down.
Los Angeles: My process is different for a trial, with testimony, than for a hearing on declarations. During a trial, I stay out of the evidentiary process -usually - the exception being when there are two pro pers who are lost. I feel that the decision making process requires detached observation and evaluation. The luxury of a trial enables me to do that.
I'm a compulsive note taker. Note taking helps me assimilate the evidence, as the trial proceeds. When a case has no complicated financial issues, I will generally have my decision in mind by the time the argument is over.
I rarely take anything under submission. If I do take a matter under submission, I'll go back over trial briefs and declarations to refresh my recollection. I'll review my notes in the areas where there was conflict: where I had a specific question that was answered by testimony. I'll look at the exhibits and try to determine how everything fits into the issues I have to decide. I will set a schedule for briefing and oral argument; if I get the bottom line from each side, in writing, and I hear relatively brief oral argument, I am usually able to rule from the bench, after argument. Of course, if there is a major custody/visitation issue, I will engage in a great personal struggle, especially in a close-call move-away case.
Time constraints are such that I do everything humanly possible to proceed by declaration. When I'm proceeding by Reifler, I may do a lot of my own inquiry, just to satisfy myself that what I have read is really supported by what I'm seeing and hearing from the parties. I try to flesh out their written testimony, get a sense of their credibility, find out things that they didn't put in their declarations. When the declarations and statements in court are completely at odds, I try to discover enough to tell me which party has been absolutely untruthful about what is in the papers.
A Good Decision: Family court is a court of equity. I try to do a little justice - follow the law - and a fair amount of equity. In child custody cases, I try to make my decision child oriented rather than based on the respective parents' "I want's".
In terms of economics, I struggle to be realistic. I try to strike a balance, considering the law, the needs of the parties and the available resources. The vast majority of people I see are wage earners who cannot afford to support two households. There is never enough money to go around, but the parties have not yet come to terms with that reality; they expect me to create a solution. When I make an order that is patently inadequate, and I'm challenged with "Well, what are you going to do to get me some money?" all I can say is, I've done the best I can. I bite my tongue and refrain from noting my printing press is broken today.
I often have to remind myself that the decision was correct on the facts, and so, it was "good", even though it didn't feel terrific.
Do you take on the pain of the litigants?
San Luis Obispo: I think the pain of custody cases is overrated. Most parents are pretty decent people who are in a bad place. Most of the time now with the mediators they can eventually can work through most of it. Custody trials usually involve either one person who is irrational or two who are irrational. It's easy if it's only one. The ones that can be really tough are those few cases where the two parents are in such pain they just can't function, and the court has no good choice. Sure, I take that kind of thing home with me, but this doesn't happen very often.
It's the juvenile court judges who probably suffer the most; they see the kids who sin or who are sinned against and are daily faced with Hobson's choice.
I can't agonize about all the decisions. I've got to do my best, make my call and get on with the next case - but I do worry about some of them.
Los Angeles: Occasionally I do take some of their problems home with me. Sometimes I have a tough case to decide; it hangs around, and I carry it home. I must confess, some of my most brilliant thoughts come to me in the shower. But, it's more likely to be the other way around: I've made a decision...Was it really good? Will it work? What is going to happen now?
However, you don't have to - should not - immerse yourself in the litigants' pain in order to make a decision. And I don't. It would be counter-productive. One of the reasons people are in court is that their feelings have prevented them from making their own decision.
Does making decisions that affect every aspect of people's lives become easier over time? Not in terms of the emotions that are always swirling around. But, for me, becoming a little more knowledgeable has made things easier.
How do you cope with the daily crisis?
San Luis Obispo: I get a lot of crises; the really nasty stuff is what I call the atomic bomb of custody: allegations of sexual abuse. When that goes off, everybody's got to run for cover and we have to be very careful. So you make orders that will protect a child, but you may, in fact, have improperly deprived a parent of custody or visitation, and maybe for a considerable length of time. But who wants to be the judge who sent the kids off to a molester?
Los Angeles: The worst steady diet of crises is the domestic calendar. If I had that job, it would be time to retire. We are fortunate to have a commissioner who hears that calendar.
I still get ex parte applications for restraining orders, a few at a time, in connection with the various types of family law cases. If only one side appears, the job is simpler. If the declaration cries out "Emergency, help!" I'll make the temporary order, and set a hearing. It's harder when the other party appears, and says "Judge, I just got these papers, now, in court; it's all lies; I need more time to get a lawyer". I still have to decide, now, whether to accept the truth of the moving declarations, and whether, despite the opposition, there's enough of a basis for emergency relief. If you think it's tough when everyone has had a reasonable opportunity to present his or her position, imagine the pressure at ex parte time. My feeling is that when the emergency involves children, I must err in favor of protecting them. Sometimes that hurts; sometimes it proves to have been the wrong move. Faced with the exigency of the moment, however, a judge has no other choice.
What are the major stressors for a family law judge?
Los Angeles: It is a busy busy calendar. My morning calendar call is at 8:30 a.m. I try to get rid of all of those matters that look cut and dried, make them go outside and try to settle, decide the guideline support on the undisputed facts, and send the parties on their way. Then I do my ex partes (I suspect there is an unpublished rule among lawyers which says that they must all bring their ex partes on days when my OSC calendars are the longest). After that, I have hearings on cases which require more time, (and two days a week I squeeze in law and motions) and I bring back people who have been trying to resolve their disputes, or have gone to conciliation. I try to reserve afternoons for trials.
I have to have preparation time as well. I read everything that has been filed for my calendar. I usually just try to familiarize myself with everyone's contentions, rather than arrive at a tentative determination of support, for example. It takes time. There are days when I am at work until 6:30 or 7:00 at night, especially during those days when I have a long cause trial relentlessly going on.
This assignment is an enormous amount of work; it's never-ending. In addition to the daily calendar, there are judgments and orders that pour in every day - never fewer than half a dozen I have to sign. Then there are a certain number of cases I have reluctantly taken under submission. Some require research, and if the attorneys have not done enough for me, I do it. Not to mention the occasional tentative decision, statements of decision, the objections, dealing with revisions, etc.
There are the other demands on my time. Even though I don't get involved in politics, and I don't get involved in organizations that are likely to have cases or issues before me, I am involved in judicial activities. I have done a fair amount of teaching at the judicial college and seminars. I am active on court committees. And, the family law bar is a close knit group that sponsors many educational programs. The family law judges and commissioner are very much a part of that. I, along with my colleagues, speak at bar meetings, lawyer's study groups, the annual county bar family law symposium, the annual child custody colloquium, and so on, and on, and on. There are times when I feel as if I haven't got a moment in which to breathe.
San Luis Obispo: Judges deal with stress all the time in the courtroom and family law has a lot of stress added. I didn't get the parties into the spot they are in, but I can help them out, give them some attention, make my call and go on.
Managing the case load is difficult. The case is estimated for four hours and now its eight, they're still going and they're not wasting time - but I can't finish, and cases are lined up in back of them.
Good lawyers in my courtroom make things go so well, they make my job a pleasure.
What do you do to alleviate stress?
San Luis Obispo: Stress is part of a judge's life...and it ought to be. I don't know how you can avoid it. We are often asked to act on insufficient evidence, where the law is murky, and you just do the best job you can.
Take breaks. Just a couple of weeks ago I went off for five days hiking and fishing in the Eastern Sierra. Get out of it for awhile; there are things you can do other than family law. But then again, don't expect that the other areas will be stress free.
I love the law. I'm pretty good at it. That keeps me sane. When you know something pretty well, usually you feel good about doing it, whether you are a judge or making automobiles.
Los Angeles: Going home is a great relief from the stress. I get to see my husband (forty almost-six years, the same husband, no tacking!) I get to catch up on the local gossip and pass along mine. I can play with the dog, and pretend I'm going to get back into obedience work. Maybe I'll hear from the grandchildren. I've got so many interests, it's almost stressful to relieve the stress. I grow many of my own vegetables, bake my own bread, and cook up a storm from time to time. My "trade mark" is flowers on the bench. I bring them every Monday morning, freshly cut from my garden.
At work I reduce the stress by using all the help I can get. I rely on our fabulous clerk to make my work flow smoothly. The attorneys are very, very, helpful. We have a volunteer attorney available in the courthouse every day to act as mediator, mostly on financial issues. This is especially useful when I am dealing with pro pers.
Our conciliators are terrific. Even if they are not able to help the parties arrive at a parenting agreement, the process softens people's positions, such that by the time the litigants come into the courtroom the level of animosity has often been reduced, and the problem is that they have forgotten what the problem is. Then, I can easily help them arrive at a plan.
I use evaluations for those knotty cases which would otherwise give me severe stress. An evaluator has expertise which I don't have, and has more time to get to know parties, the children, the extended family, and the households.
Sometimes I talk with a child. I'll only do this if everyone stipulates that I can do it alone, off the record, informally and confidentially, if that is what the child wants. Sometimes a child will tell me things he or she didn't want anyone to know, if the child is assured the conversation is confidential, and that the bottom line decision will be mine: that he or she is not responsible for the decision. In some situations it relieves my stress when I can make a decision after I've had a meeting with the voiceless child whose life I'm going to affect.
Collegiality in the family law bench, and rapport with the attorneys is also a stress reliever. It's good to be able to get together with groups: lawyers, judges, kick ideas around: how do you feel about this piece of legislation, what are we going to do about this particular procedure or rule? Even if the judges ultimately decide on a particular procedure, the input is useful. And, if the family law bar is involved, the family law bar is more cooperative in effectuating the course taken by the court, and my job is less stressful.
For a real break, I travel; short trips to see the grandchildren; mini-vacations up and down the state, often in connection with bar or judicial functions, and genuine vacations to anyplace in the world where I can walk (not hike), be outdoors (provided there is indoor plumbing), explore different cultures and escape from the phones, decision making and the pressures of life in the big city.
Why are you doing family law?
Los Angeles: It's a living, right?
Family law has its great days and it has its awful days. Why I am doing it depends on the day you ask the question - great or awful.
Seriously, it's very important work. We, here in family law, deal with as much money as the biggest cases that are tried upstairs; the issues we deal with are more profound; affect every detail of people's lives. Of course we get the least recognition, are permitted the least amount of time in which to do the job, and get the least amount of help in terms of staffing. Either I'm a glutton for punishment, or I am here because I get satisfaction being "hands on" involved in the lives of the people who come to family court. And, I like to think I am doing some good.
San Luis Obispo: I love to come to work. I get to be in the courtroom most of every day. I like the theater of it. People will come in and tell me things that if they happened to me I would keep them secret - I wouldn't tell anybody. I'm a confessional. This is forensic voyeurism. It's wonderful. I've been doing this 30 years. Every week something comes in and I think oh really? I've never heard this one before.
I know many judges hate it because they have to make tough calls, but I really like family law. The truth of the matter is that I give away more money every week than they do in any other department including probate. I'm handling big money. I'm taking their paycheck and telling them where it goes, I tell them when they can and can't see their children. Now that's real power...