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Your Family Law Judge: 3 Points

Your Family Law Judge: 3 Points

By Jeff J. Horn – Ocean County Divorce Attorney

Your Family Law Judge: 3 Points

Your Family Law Judge is a stranger. In Ocean County and all of New Jersey your Family Law Judge is a political appointee. Oftentimes judges are under tremendous bureaucratic pressure – incentivized by case movement. Rather than quality of justice, judges are criticized for moving cases slowly. It is the no fault of the judge when they are overwhelmed by case volume and numb from inability to solve the litigants problems. Who will you allow to be in control of your family’s future?. Hopefully, you can see the folly of allowing your Family Law Judge to make ALL of the substantive decisions about your case.  Take your case in your hands for yourself and for your children.

1. What Does Your Family Law Judge Know About You?

Oddly, the judge knows nothing about you.  In fact, the formality of the presentation of your case deprives the judge of an opportunity to really get to know you and/or your spouse as people.  Dreamily, you hope to convince the judge that the other spouse is “no good”.   You fear that the other spouse is likely to get over on the judge.

The “good spouse,” the flexible spouse sometimes comes across to the judge as willy nilly or unsure of the facts and his or her goals.  Typically, that approach is not helpful and leaves too much discretion to the judge.  Judges tell me that they are afraid to screw up their cases and acknowledge that they are strangers forced to decide the fate of you and your children.  After many cases, judges have told me (off the record) that they are not sure what they have done is correct and that the parties should go and sort things out.

2. What You Want to Believe.

Process anger pokes its nose very significantly into the area of dealing with the judge.  Ideally, you want to believe that the judge is instilled with some great wisdom. You hope the judge has an ability to see through all of the he-said-she-said allegations, and simply do the right thing for you and your children.  Trial rarely provides the judge with much insight into your true feelings. Generally, the high-spirited litigant will become too emotional and offer too much information. 

Conversely, the well-scripted litigant will heed the lawyer’s advice and say the minimum.  In either case, the likelihood of the judge gaining great insight your life is nil.  More than likely, the judge will apply a formula to come up with a result.  You do not have to believe this advice.  It is your right – you can take your case to trial, spend all of your money, ruin any goodwill that may exist between you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse and make your professionals rich.  Although the judge will still never know you as a person, but he may determine that you are surely a “poorer” person.

Good news, you can do a little to help yourself make a positive or at least a neutral impression in front of the judge. When interacting with your lawyer or the court, try to be yourself — that is, yourself on best behavior.  Wear clean, nice, casual clothing.  Wear clothing you would wear to go to your child’s school for a meeting with the teacher, or appropriate business-like attire.  Appropriate appearance will not likely improve the result of your case.  Inappropriate dress will certainly impact the judge.  Do not forget that the judges are human beings with their own prejudices.

3. Your Family Law Judge is Chosen Based Upon Their Expertise In a Field of Law — Right?

In truth, very few judges practiced family and divorce law.  The political route to a judgeship typically involves a practice surrounding government service and representation of governmental bodies.  Usually, the best lawyers in a given specialty, particularly family and divorce law, are unlikely to become judges.  Top lawyers become that way because of a unique devotion to an area of practice.  They do not have time to devote substantial hours to political endeavors.  Even the most highly paid judges with all of the perks and generous retirement attendant to the position cannot rival the earnings of a top lawyer, even a top family lawyer.

For some new judges, assignment to family court is among the least favorable among judges.  In practice, new judges are disproportionately assigned to the family court.  Their lack of familiarity with the law, lack of confidence as a judge, and general sense of being overwhelmed can turn into a nightmare for you.

It is not that you have a choice.  Family court cases are adjudicated by judges, not juries.  The judge has to decide who is telling the truth and how to apply the truth of this divorce to the law.  Although the body of law has grown in recent years, there is no law or set of laws that can accommodate every factual scenario of every couple.

You Be the Judge

Think of five divorced couples. Next, contrast the diversity in their positions and in the resolution of their cases.  Although purely anecdotal, it is my observation that most family court judges are married and have not been divorced.  These judges probably look to the positions asserted and resolutions achieved of other people’s divorces.  Your Family Law Judge is in the same boat as you.  As a result, they are reluctant to understand the issues of divorce and make tough decisions.  

Although most are excellent, some divorce judges fall into two large emotional categories:  the numb and the overwhelmed.

The numb judges mechanically apply the law and their own prejudices to each case and quickly dispose of the issues.  Occasionally, the overwhelmed judges personalize the issues. Remember, judges are real people and can become paralyzed and confused.  The overwhelmed judge will frequently change his or her mind.  The numb judge will make the wrong decision and stand by it.  

Incompetence is not a reason for termination of a judge.  Judges are measured by moving the docket along.  Case movement and completion are more highly valued than is the quality of justice.  This issue is a source of great debate and contention between the administrators of the court and lawyers.  Ultimately, family judges are state or county employees (and in few instances federal employees).  They enjoy the benefits of fixed work hours, no layoffs, and no need to create their own economic activity.  They handle the cases assigned. The judge is presumed by the system to have the requisite knowledge and judgment to handle your case. By and large, your Family Law Judge is skilled and highly competent, but starved of time to handle all the cases before them. Keeping this in mind will guide you in achieving your goals.

Good News – NJ Supreme Court gets two new permanent member Justice Rachel Wainer Apter and Justice Douglas Fasciale. Hear all about it on The Bold Sidebar.

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Thanks to Horn Law Group, LLC intern Noah Hilsdorf.