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Sunday, April 8, 2012

What Makes a Good Family Court Judge?

Attorney Henry S. Gornbein
This post is from the Huffington Post's Divorce Blog.  The author is Henry S. Gornbein, a colleague of ours from Oakland County that specializes in divorce and family law and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  In this post, Henry really captures the critical elements of a good family court judge.

Here is what Henry had to say on the subject:

In over forty years of practicing family law, I have appeared before hundreds of different judges. I have found that some are rude, arrogant, and suffer from what is known as black robe syndrome. This means that they have forgotten -- or never knew -- what it was like to practice law, and have a holier than thou attitude. Most judges are considerate, will listen, and will try to resolve issues in cases.

Here are some of my thoughts on the attributes of a good judge in family law:

1.       A judge should remember that he or she may also be divorced. I have represented judges in their divorces before, and they are human just like everybody else.

2.       A good judge should listen to the arguments of attorneys and show compassion.

3.       A good judge should not lose control of his or her court room.

4.       A judge should not let arguments go on endlessly, and give everyone a chance to speak. The judge should also know when to cut arguments off in court.

5.       A good judge should be fair and not biased.

6.       A good judge should be decisive. One of the most frustrating things for attorneys are judges who will take matters under advisement, or fail to come up with a ruling. People need rulings so that they can go on with their lives. Even if an attorney or client disagrees with the ruling, it is better to have a ruling than not to have any decision made by the court.

7.       Judges should be on time. If court is set for 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., judges should be prompt. One of the most frustrating things for litigants and their attorneys is to sit around for hours on end waiting for a judge who does not start court promptly.

8.      Some judges will refuse to talk to attorneys in chambers about a case. I think that is wrong. I feel very strongly that a meeting with attorneys through a pre-trial, where a judge will listen to some of the key issues and then send a signal, can lead to a settlement. I also believe that a good judge will set up meetings in order to settle cases rather than just saying, "if you can't settle, then call your first witness." Trials should be a last resort, not a first resort. A good judge knows that.

9.       A good judge should always be in control of his or her court room and docket, but also should not be punitive or refuse to allow people to have their day in court. There is an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. Cases that are set for trial which are continually adjourned because of court docket conflicts or other reasons, help no one. While I believe that there should be reasonable adjournments granted when an attorney requests one, there should not be unlimited adjournments of a hearing or trial of a case.

10.   I have found over the years that if the judge will start a trial, listen to the parties, allow some evidence, and permit the litigants to get whatever he or she has off his or her chest -- the case can often be settled. Getting that day in court, getting a chance to speak and feeling that a litigant is heard can often lead to a resolution of a case without the need to go through an entire trial. I have had judges over the years who would give people a chance to speak in an informal manner, and then get down to try and settle the case. Letting someone be heard, letting someone feel that his or her thoughts and wishes are important, is a good way to lead to a resolution of a case.

11.    A good judge should show respect for the attorneys and for the litigants, and a good judge should expect respect in return.

12.    In our multi-cultural, social and ethnic society, a judge should be sensitive to religious, ethnic, racial, and cultural differences. I have had judges tell me that certain cultures act in certain ways, and allowing these cultural differences to be recognized in a respectful manner can lead to a resolution of a case.

13.    In making a ruling, a good judge should be clear and concise, and explain what he or she is doing and why. Too many times I have had attorneys and litigants walking out of a court room shaking their heads and wondering what the judge did and clearly not understanding what the ruling was based upon. This is not good for anyone.

14.    Last, but not least, just like a good lawyer understands that a trial before a stranger should be the last resort, not the first, a good judge should understand that also. A judge should leave plenty of opportunity for resolution of a case short of trial either through mediation, negotiations or sometimes, arm-twisting by the judge.

Well put Henry; we could not have stated the matter any better.  Clearly, four-decades of practicing family law has given you some very valuable insight.  Thanks for sharing your thougts.

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