Family Law Perspective (2017)
With six of our seven bench officers having served in the Family Law Division in prior consecutive years, 2017 has been a year of continuity. We welcomed one additional Family Law judge in January, the Honorable Brian Haynes, whose courtroom is in Pittsburg. Judge Haynes plunged right in and quickly became adept at managing short-cause calendars efficiently and settling cases whenever possible. Given his considerable experience with criminal jury trials, it is hardly surprising that he has found himself in “familiar” territory conducting family law bench trials and long-cause hearings.
Judge Anita Santos also served in Pittsburg again this year. As one of our most experienced Family Law judges, Judge Santos continues to impress all with her encyclopedic knowledge of Family Law and her infinite patience with attorneys and litigants alike. Having completed her third year in the Family Law rotation, Judge Santos will begin a criminal trial assignment in Martinez next January. Family Law’s loss is Criminal Division’s gain.
Here in Martinez, Judge John Cope is completing his second year with the Division, and has already become an expert on family law issues, including international jurisdiction in custody matters. Next year, Judge Cope’s department will relocate to Pittsburg, where he and Judge Haynes will constitute the Family Law Division’s eastern outpost.
Judge Leslie Landau is finishing her third and final year in Family Law in Martinez. Among her many contributions to the good functioning of the Division this year were the revival of regular meetings between judicial officers and the Contra Costa County Bar Association’s (CCCBA) Family Law Section leadership, and her help drafting revisions to the Local Rules of Court. Beginning in January, Judge Landau will transfer to the Juvenile Division to preside in delinquency proceedings at Juvenile Hall. It is as yet unknown whether she will incorporate the legendary “stipulations” candy jar that she keeps in her Family Law Courtroom into her new Juvenile Court assignment.
Judge Terri Mockler graciously took on the bulk of the Family Law contempt calendar, which returned to the Division this year. Judge Mockler handles most Family Law contempt proceedings from first appearance and referral to counsel, through arraignment, pretrial, and trial assignment. Judge Mockler successfully implemented a mediation program in Family Law contempt matters with attorney Barbara Suskind from the Congress of Neutrals, who works with parties to resolve a significant number of cases without a contested hearing. Beginning next January, Judge Mockler will be the Supervising Judge of the Family Law Division.
Commissioner Kathleen Murphy continues presiding in Department 52 handling all support cases involving the Contra Costa County Department of Child Support Services, including contempt matters involving child support.
On the “front end” there is now a dedicated clerk’s window in Martinez for all DCSS cases. Our statistics show that the number of filings at the Family Law window in Pittsburg has increased, but that average wait times in Pittsburg and Martinez are about the same. As I reported in last year’s review, the online process of applying for Domestic Violence Restraining Orders continues to be available through the court’s public website. This enhanced service allows parties seeking or opposing Domestic Violence Restraining Orders to begin completing their paperwork online and receives uniformly positive reviews.
Family Court Services provides invaluable assistance to parents in child custody and visitation cases. There are now just over eight full-time Child Custody Recommending Counselor positions filled, which means that wait times generally range between three to four weeks in most cases. However, there has also been a significant decrease in the “no show” rate, with a parent or parents not appearing for custody counseling appointments in only about 11% of cases. Moreover, in a trend that has been noticed statewide, the “agreement rate” has dropped appreciably. The numbers in our county reflect that the percentage of custody counseling cases resulting in agreements has gone from over 55% in 2009 to just over 40% through the end of August 2017. Needless to say, fewer missed appointments and fewer parental agreements places significant pressure on the custody counselors, who work extremely hard to write reports and make recommendations for the judges’ consideration.
The CCCBA’s Family Law Section continues to provide an invaluable service to the court and community through the newly-renamed and reconfigured “Family Court Volunteer Mediator Settlement Program.” Self-represented litigants attend a clinic at the John F. Kennedy School of Law to identify issues for settlement and make sure they have any necessary documents. When the parties arrive at the pro per settlement conference, a volunteer attorney meets with them in a confidential mediation to help them reach agreements. Many of these mediations result in agreements that are submitted to the court and later incorporated into a judgment. All of us in the Family Law Division appreciate the attorneys who provide this pro bono service. It is common to hear self-represented parties express their gratitude directly to the volunteer attorney mediators at the end of a successful settlement conference.
In 2018, the Division will welcome three judges to Family Law. Each of them has specifically requested the assignment, and they all bring enthusiasm and experience to the Division.
Judge Joni Hiramoto will take over Judge Santos’s cases, and will be assigned to Martinez. Judge Hiramoto is an experienced judge who has presided over criminal and juvenile cases. She frequently participates in panel presentations on Domestic Violence issues, and handled the misdemeanor domestic violence probation calendar in Martinez for many years.
Judge Danielle Douglas will take over Judge Landau’s cases. Judge Douglas has most recently been assigned to the Richmond branch court presiding over criminal hearings and trials. Prior to her appointment to the bench she served as a Deputy District Attorney in both Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties.
Judge John Laettner has also had assignments in both the Criminal and Juvenile Divisions of our court. Judge Laettner will take over the cases that are currently assigned to my department, and he brings his many years of experience with criminal and juvenile trials and settlement proceedings to his new Family Law assignment.
As I round out my fifth year in Family Law, I am preparing to transition to a criminal calendar assignment in Martinez starting in January. I am always amazed by the work everyone in the Family Law Division does in service to the public. The courtroom, records, and filing clerks and legal technicians continue to process filings efficiently and accurately, and the Family Law Facilitators work tirelessly to assist our self-represented litigants.
While 2018 will see a number of changes in Family Law, I am certain that the long-standing productive and cooperative rapport between the Family Law bench and bar will continue uninterrupted.