In my many years of practicing family law I have had many experiences with judges. Early in my career I clerked for judges in Wayne County, Michigan, which is the county seat where the City of Detroit is located. I learned quickly that there are all kinds of judges. Some judges really cared and others were just marking time. I would have some judges tell me that they had a certain result that they wanted and that I was to find the law to support it. A good judge will follow the facts and the law, not the other way around.
In one case I was called in to chambers by the judge in a divorce. We were discussing the issues that were in controversy. With both attorneys present the judge pulled out a coin from his pocket and said call heads or tails. This is not the way a case should be decided.
Family law is one of the most complicated legal areas. It is made much more difficult because of the tremendous emotional overlay that goes hand and hand with the facts in every divorce or custody dispute. Being a family law judge is not easy!
I have written on the topic of what people should expect from a judge and more and more I feel that judges must be more user-friendly. By this I mean that people need to understand what is going on in their cases and why things happen. Too often there is a mysterious overlay over everything that can be incomprehensible to attorneys as well as the clients who are in the middle of the trauma of a divorce.
Here are some points that I believe are important:
1. Court should start on time. If court is set for 8:30 a.m., it is wrong for a judge not to take the bench before 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 a.m. In Wayne County, there was a former judge who would frequently take the bench over an hour after the normal start of court time. In this situation the attorneys and litigants were waiting nervously for court to start. The public often does not understand that a lot of events take place in the judge’s chambers and often a late start is unavoidable.
2. There is a lot of emotion in a family law matter and a good judge should control his or her courtroom and cool things down. Judges should not let attorneys attack each other or their clients without trying to bring things under control. Some attorneys will spend a half hour covering matters that should be done in 5 or 10 minutes. This is where a judge should rein the attorneys and litigants in. A good judge will say that I have read your pleadings or motion and is there anything that you can add.
3. A good judge should be decisive. In the past I have seen judges who do not make a decision. There is an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. I have found over the years that attorneys and clients want a decision. Even if I disagree with the judge’s ruling I would rather have the ruling then no ruling. The ruling should be clearly made with the reasoning for it being spelled out as well. With a ruling at least the parties can move on to the next part of the case or to the next chapter of their lives.
4. A good judge should be accessible. Good attorneys and good judges should be problem solvers. Over the years I have found that a good judge will meet with the attorneys and sometimes even talk to the litigants about an issue. The judge will often state that I usually do this in a particular situation unless the facts in a hearing or trial point me in a different direction. With this information attorneys can often resolve an issue or a case because they have been given a reading from the judge and can see “the handwriting on the wall”. Lately I have found judges who refuse to meet with attorneys or to discuss the case other than formally on the record in open court. This is not a good thing. Sometimes an informal meeting in the judge’s chambers can clear the air and work wonders in a case.
5. Most divorces and other family law matters should be settled. A good judge will tell you that he or she will make decisions that impact heavily on your lives and once you go in to trial or a hearing you lose control of your lives. It is always better to resolve a case through negotiations or mediation. Trial should be a last resort. The judge does not know you or your issues and must rely on testimony and evidence which is often only the tip of the iceberg.
6. When a case must go to trial the litigants and attorneys should be granted their day in court. Some judges do not want to try cases and will constantly adjourn the case. Some cases need to at least have a trial started. Some judges will allow litigants to get what they want off of their chests and in many of these situations once the parties know that they have been heard either the trial will proceed or a settlement can be achieved, even in the middle of trial.
Finally, it is critical to remember that attorneys and judges are helping people going through a divorce or other family law matter at the worst times in their lives. They are suffering and often there are no good or easy answers. A calm guiding hand and leadership from a judge can do wonders to help people in these situations.
We have many wonderful hard working judges who do everything that they can to help people. These judges should be applauded.
These are some of my thoughts on this important issue. Please share yours with me.