Family Law Perspective (Nov ’16)
This has been an eventful year in the Family Law Division. We welcomed two new judges to the division, increased slightly the overall number of family law judges, and implemented technological upgrades to enhance the services we provide to the public.
In January, Judge Terri Mockler and Judge John Cope began their assignments at the Peter L. Spinetta Law Center. Through intensive training provided by the Judicial Council and Center for Judiciary Education and Research, substantial self-study, and regular consultation with experienced family law bench officers, our two newest family law judges quickly came up to speed handling their calendars. With the conversion of what was formerly a 60% family law assignment to a full-time Family Law Department, we currently have five family law judges.
Judge Leslie Landau is finishing her second year in Family Law, and is considered a “natural” by lawyers and litigants alike. Judge Landau tries to help the parties achieve creative settlements where possible and, barring negotiated resolution, puts her experience as a trial judge to good use. Judge Landau and I round out the roster of the four family law judges assigned to Martinez.
As the court has slowly begun to emerge from the darkest days of the budget crisis, we were able to re-open a family law courtroom at the Richard E. Arnason Justice Center in Pittsburg, where Judge Anita Santos presides. Judge Santos’s cases do not exclusively involve parties from the East County area, but rather continue to be assigned based on case number. The smooth re-opening of a Family Law Department in Pittsburg took place thanks to the hard work of staff in Court Records and the Clerk’s Office. Court files and papers needed in Pittsburg are consistently delivered on time. Lead Family Law Legal Technician Nicolle Clark played a pivotal role in designing and implementing the clerical processes that have facilitated the return of family law services to the Pittsburg Court. The Family Law Facilitators have increased their presence in Pittsburg to assist self-represented litigants there.
Cases in which the Contra Costa County Department of Child Support Services is involved are handled in Department 52, where Commissioner Kathleen Murphy makes her way through heavy calendars with good humor and grace.
Interpreter services expanded to include all family law matters, not just domestic violence restraining order (DVRO) cases. The court interpreters stay busy. They must first be assigned to criminal and juvenile court cases before handling family law matters other than domestic violence restraining order requests. For this reason, attorneys and self-represented litigants are reminded that it is essential to request an interpreter as early as possible, since there are a limited number of Spanish-language interpreters available at each courthouse, and interpreters for other languages, such as Mandarin and American Sign Language (ASL), need to be scheduled well in advance.
The Contra Costa County Bar Association’s Family Law Section continues to provide an invaluable service to the court and community through the double pro-per settlement conference program. Self-represented litigants are first directed to attend a clinic at the John F. Kennedy School of Law to organize their paperwork and identify potential issues for settlement. When the parties arrive at the settlement conference, a volunteer attorney meets with them to try and help settle their case using the information organized at the clinic. Many cases are brought to closure at the double pro-per settlement conferences with the volunteer attorneys’ assistance.
Family Law Section attorneys also provide pro bono representation as counsel for active duty members of the military who are deployed. Other volunteer attorneys conduct workshops to help self-represented litigants complete their final judgments. All of us in the Family Law Division are deeply thankful to the attorneys who make time to provide pro bono service, and we are especially grateful to Sharon Raab for her continued leadership of the Pro Per Settlement Conference Program.
Next year, we will welcome a new Family Law Judge in the person of the Hon. Brian Haynes. Judge Haynes is an experienced bench officer who has most recently heard criminal cases in Pittsburg. He has previously had assignments in the criminal calendar and felony trial departments in Martinez. Judge Haynes is excited to join the Family Law Division, and has begun preparing for his new assignment. He will become the second Family Law bench officer assigned to Pittsburg, and with his arrival, the total number of judges assigned to the Family Law Division will increase to six. As with Judge Santos, Judge Haynes’s cases will not solely involve East County litigants, but rather be assigned by case number. Other than the addition of Judge Haynes, next year we will not see any changes in the bench officers assigned to the Division.
This year we implemented an online process of applying for domestic violence restraining orders. Thanks to the efforts of the court’s Information Technology staff, Magda Lopez, and the legal technicians, this project has been quite successful. Both applicants for DVROs and parties responding to a DVRO request may now use the court’s online portal to submit all forms. The online DVRO application process has received positive reviews from outside entities, including Bay Areal Legal Aid and the Family Justice Centers.
On a personal note, I want to acknowledge the work accomplished this year by everyone in the Family Law Division. The consistent professionalism of the Family Law Facilitators, courtroom, records, and filing clerks, legal technicians, child custody recommending counselors and other staff in Family Court Services is reflected in some of the comments received on cards users of our services have submitted:
“I have been coming to this location for the past year….customer service with a smile each and every time.”
“She pays attention to detail, makes you feel important and does so with an extremely pleasant attitude.”
“She was magnificent, patient, friendly and very helpful.”
Family Law attorneys and leaders of the Family Law Section consistently tell me how pleased they are with the functioning of the Division at all levels. Through the hard work of our staff and bench officers, the Family Law Division continues to serve the public well. The outlook for next year is almost as exciting as this year has been.