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The Unified Court: Interview with The Hon. Leonard P. Edward

By Jennifer Jackson, JD (Family Law News, Judicial Survey, Vol. 17, No. 3))


Santa Clara County: The Hon. Leonard P. Edwards

But the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it. Thucydides, Funeral Oration of Pericles, 40.

Reform, that you may preserve. Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay 1900-1859 Debate on the First Reform Bill (March 2, 1831)

"You called the right person", said Len Edwards, Judge of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Court, when contacted about the inter-relationship of the various courts that touch on the lives of children and families. In fact, speaking with Judge Edwards was a humbling experience. Underlying his answers to each naive question was the unspoken where have you been?

Judge Edwards is to the unified court concept what King Arthur was to the roundtable. His article The Relationship of Family and Juvenile Courts in Child Abuse Cases, (1987) 27 Santa Clara L. Rev. 201, identified the courts' divergences and overlap in function, policy and procedure, and made several recommendations1 which were then incorporated into the 1988 Child Victim Witness Report (of which, not surprisingly, Judge Edward is one of the principal authors). The subject of this interview, then, was the status of his recommendations. His answer, basically, is: "We've done it all. And it works."

Let's hear from Judge Edwards:

FLN: What is the unified court?

Union gives strength. The Bundle of Sticks, Aesop fl. c. 550 B.C.

Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all!
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall. The Liberty Song (1768) John Dickinson.

[The unified court] can be created by restructuring the trial court so that the court has integrated jurisdiction over all legal problems that involve members of a family. In practice, a unified family court brings together under one court administration all juvenile, domestic relations, paternity, emancipation, domestic violence, adoptions, guardianships, termination of parental rights and child support enforcement matters. In some courts the jurisdiction extends to criminal and civil matters involving family members. Leonard P. Edwards, The Juvenile Court and the Role of the Juvenile Court Judge, Juvenile & Family Court Journal (Vol. 43, No. 2 1992, 38.)

Judge Edwards: The idea that a system doesn't create new problems that compound an already terrible situation is pretty important to me. Having made the recommendations in my article and having co-authored the 1988 Child Victim Witness study (which incorporated my recommendations), I was pleased that Santa Clara County was selected as one of the pilot projects for developing the Unified Court model. In implementing the project, we have put nearly all the recommendations into practice.

In our unified family court we have a tri-court project; People in family, juvenile and probate courts sit down regularly to coordinate their cases in the multiple forums. Central to the success of this is our focus on the intake process in all three settings. We want to make certain that the child and family are directed to the appropriate legal setting

We have thirteen judges in the unified court who serve in juvenile, family, mental health, and probate. Our meetings differ in scope - we will meet with Social Services and/or Family Court Services; we will have a Family Resources Division meeting to discuss intake, resources available to each court, how to coordinate, implement and imitate, and so on. These are not individual case management conferences, but rather conferencing on managing cases.

We try to have consistency over time with people staying in the Family Resources Division, and consistency - for families - of judges, who rotate within the unified court and continue to deal with families. We've developed a cadre of people who want to stay.

We have also taken this one step further, and have initiated cooperation with the criminal courts, where there are parallel cases of criminal prosecutions of child abuse and domestic violence.

Most California Court Systems have a civil and criminal model - the only way it makes sense for children and families to have power and equal voice in the court system is to have a unified family court. Even though family, juvenile and probate should be free-standing departments, they need to be closely coordinated.

FLN: How does the unified court work?

Th[e] strengths [of the unified court] include:

  1. The consolidation of all family-related legal matters into one division of the trial court for maximized coordination within the court system.
  2. The development of a team of interested and competent judges willing to serve in the unified family court for substantial periods of time.
  3. Increased sensitivity to the needs of the child and family by having one judge hear all legal matters and having one probation officer or social worker assigned to the case.
  4. Improved access to services by all children and families which come before the court. Unlike traditional court systems the unified family court is more prepared to provide the services need for a particular family regardless of the legal category. [cites omitted]. Edwards, Ibid.

Judge Edwards: This project works through good communication, and that's hard work. It's how the court takes control of its business and prevents litigant end runs around the system and thwarting of the court process.

We're talking legal culture: do the courts even think they have something to talk about? It means protocols, local rules, understandings, telephone calls, and meetings.

Intake: We have defined how a case should move if it starts at an intake at one of the three courts. We have three different intake agencies: the probate investigator, social services and family court services. Each case can start at any one of them, all before the judges hear anything.

Exchange of Information: We have protocols about the exchange of information between agencies: you must make sure that each has an understanding about when they can and cannot talk to one another. Once you get the investigators working together, problems don't bubble up to the judges.2

Judges: We have protocols that require judges to telephone each other where there is a question about where a case belongs. Remember that the principles of the UCCJA have nothing to do with state lines. They have to do with the judge who says this is my case: whether it is a conflict between states, countries, counties, or courtrooms, even if the two courtrooms are in the same building.

Anyone can get a hold of a case and hang on to it. You'd be surprised. Who should have the case ought to be the result of a rational discussion.

I'm the dependency judge; I make my most frequent calls when I'm not sure if it should be a guardianship or a dependency case. For example, we have two dead parents and a child who doesn't appear to have any relatives. Then some relatives show up and the picture blurs...

Another situation is the case of someone coming forward who everyone agrees is a good person, who could be a guardian but is unlicensable or could not qualify as a foster parent. The law says that there can be no guardianship proceedings while a juvenile law case is pending. What to do?

Another one that pops up now and then is where Family Court is examining a child abuse problem, and one of the other agencies initiates an investigation of the family in a different court unbenownst to anyone. As you know, Social Services doesn't talk to anybody, so this is a typical happenstance. We have created elaborate rules about how to exchange information orally or in written form between the agencies so that we can get this case into one proper forum.
Part of the problem coordinating is that the usually the two courts don't agree that any family court case needs to go to juvenile court. The cup is so deep, filled so full in juvenile court with truly egregious events that simple family dysfunction isn't heard in many counties...the issue has got to be sexy.

Central Registry

The ultimate plan is to have a central registry, where all the kids in the system - anywhere - can be identified. If we find a child in the system in more than one place, we can consolidate cases - I've had two delinquent children, for example, at the same time another judge had two dependent children in the same family, which really ought to be dealt with as a whole. Computers are wonderful; it's creating the data base that's the issue right now. It's a little disappointing that this has not already happened: we are, after all, Silicon Valley.

FLN: How do you deal with crossover cases?

Judge Edwards: Trying to go forward in two places at once came up in the Annie P. Case. [In re Anne P. (1988) 199 Cal.App.3d 183]. Annie P. started in our family court eight years ago: we had a three day trial, it went to juvenile court for a two week trial, then another three week trial, and we got three different results.

I was involved in all of this, and I was furious that our court system, with its limited resources, took that child and that family and their limited resources and played with them for years. So one of the commitments I had developed simultaneously with my move from Family Court to juvenile court was that: the Annie P.'s, the Brendon P.'s [In re Brenden P.'s (1986) 184 Cal.App.3d 910] and the William T.'s [In re William T. (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 790] cannot happen again.

We've jumped on these cases... it's sort of slick: we all sat down for a year, had meetings every month, and got protocols established for which cases go where, and when, and why, and for how long. [Ed. note: for an excellent analysis of this kind of protocol that still holds true, please also see "The Relationship of Family and Juvenile Courts in Child Abuse Cases, Leonard P. Edwards, Santa Clara L.Rev (1987), at p. 238-240]

The way it works is this: a child abuse allegation arises in a family court matter. The matter is immediately hotlined - as law requires - to Social Services, which has a limited period of time in which to investigate and file a petition. If no petition is filed within the timeline, the family court can pick it up and run with it again with the benefit of whatever came of the investigation.

Of course there is a hierarchy. When juvenile court stands up, family court sits down. The family court cannot and should not move it the juvenile court takes over. Having these meetings important just as much for looking each other in the eye and saying "this is what we'll do.",as it was in actually writing down the protocols.

Juvenile generally takes precedence over all the rest, but its jurisdiction is only over the child; the family court can still divide the property. The only jurisdiction more powerful when it comes to a child is the mental health calendar. If a child who is the subject of other proceedings is suddenly LPS'd, that's a more powerful order. Also, if the criminal court orders a Dad away from the home, I can't stop that. They can make conditions about contact with a parent that supersede mine. Even if I tried to make a different order, that parent wouldn't dare cross the criminal court.

FLN: How do attorneys fit into all of this?

Judge Edwards:The attorneys are very much a part of what we are doing: They helped write the rules, they sit in on all of our meetings. One goal of the project is to have an advocate for every child who comes into the system.

There aren't that many attorneys who understand how to move from court to court. A cadre of attorneys is developing who can do that. It's often the attorney who says let's get this case over to juvenile court. That attorney will literally carry the case over to juvenile court and hand it to an attorney who will handle it there.

You can get around the general rule that a petition in juvenile court is initiated by "the state" (usually Social Services). Welfare and Institutions Code sections 329 and 331 authorize an appeal directly to the juvenile court judge if Social Services does not file [3] Every once in a while I'll get an appeal, where the Social Service agency didn't think it was serious enough.

Family court asks different questions and has a different philosophy: dispute resolution, while Juvenile court acts as a protection agency. We change the focus, which is a very sobering experience for parents. When we have parental acting out and the attorneys can't control it: they walk into my courtroom and we're playing a new game. When I let them know that I have the power to take your child away from you forever everybody gets real quiet. When I tell them Here are the rules: your child is of great importance to me, and this is how you will behave..it is easy for me to discover who is causing the damage here, and I will be all over you.

We see remarkable changes. We jump all over them with therapy and controls. The first time they come in, they are punching my deputy out in hallway. Now they're coming in wanting to dismiss the case and get family law orders.

FLN: How does a case get from juvenile court to family court?

Judge Edwards: The juvenile court makes a decision that court supervision is no longer necessary for the protection of a child and essentially identifies one parent or the other (or both) as a safe parent; the court creates an order which simultaneously declares what the custodial visitation and arrangement will be (including paternity and restraining orders, if necessary), and then dismisses the case.

The clerk of the court is instructed to file the order in the existing family law case, or, if there is none, to create a new file in family court at no cost to the litigants. The law of the case then resides thereafter in family court clerk's office.

All of this is done on a Judicial Council form and just goes clickety click click. It's amazing how nicely things like this can change over time: When I wrote that article it just wasn't done.

FLN: Where do criminal issues fit within the unified court?

Judge Edwards: The most complex issues arise from domestic violence. You have criminal prosecution, civil protection orders, dependency and removal all going on at the same time. We need a different level of court involvement at both Muni and Superior. Judge Cannon has begun an experiment in San Diego where his courtroom does all TROs and misdemeanor domestic violence cases.

In Santa Clara County, we have a domestic violence coordinating council. This is a major issue for our court systems committee, which is part of the council. We have been meeting with the Superior Court Commissioner who does the domestic violence and TRO's, and have just gotten a grant to put all those cases on the computer so that the judges of the various courts can know about other legal proceedings.

FLN: Do the various courts share resources?

To the extent that a child has needs which must be assessed and treated, the juvenile court is in a far superior position to provide the resources to meet those needs. Leonard B. Edwards, (1987) The Relationship of Family and Juvenile Courts in Child Abuse Cases, Ibid at p. 227.

FLN: Has this changed?

Judge Edwards: Although we don't necessarily share resources and services from court to court, we take what works in one court and move it into other courts. We make certain what works is not confined to one calendar.

Family court families are different from juvenile court families. There is some overlap, but a in family court, a lot of families need some help but not that much, not the intensity we have.

There is some crossover. Sometimes in family court we do turn to Social Services and say can you help us with this part of family court plan. And they do - not always, but they do sometimes. We sometimes bring child advocates from the child advocacy to support children in family court. We also utilize mediation in Juvenile dependency cases.

One outcome of our project is that we have former juvenile judges in family court who are used to having access to this panoply of services for children and families. These judges have built a service center in family court for families who don't come to us: both preventive and rehabilitative. We just got our first national award for services our family court provides: client clinics, parenting programs, supervised visitation centers and much more. Our bar has been the absolutely critical lynch pin in the ever expanding services for children and families. Our family court services division is the most competent and qualified bunch of people around; they are a model across the country for court mediation

FLN: Conclusion?

Judge Edwards: The important issue is that the metropolitan court system doesn't get caught up in its own complexity; most courts recognize this and many courts are now considering the unified family court as way of institutionalizing the relationship among the different calendars. We are discovering that there is a synergism when we come together; we discover ideas that no one of us could have come with or acted upon alone. When we are together, these ideas pop up and make sense and we work on them together.

All your strength is in your union.
All your danger is in discord;
Therefore be at peace henceforward,
And as brothers live together. The Song Of Hiawatha (1855) pt. I Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882

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