There’s no way to deny or avoid the reality that a high conflict divorce can be emotionally and physically draining. Other than hiring a good therapist and practicing daily meditation and yoga, there’s not a lot you can do about that. However, there is something you can do about draining your financial resources and wasting your valuable time during the process of divorce: hiring a private judge. Once primarily the province of the rich and famous who desired to keep their dark and dirty secrets private, hiring a private judge is becoming a viable option for anyone who wants to bypass the congested public courts and have their case heard in the privacy and relative comfort of an attorney’s office or an alternative dispute resolution center. This fast-track divorce option plays out before an experienced judicial officer, all this while the separating spouses enjoy a catered lunch and as much bottled water as their hearts desire. As a seasoned and experienced family law attorney specializing in complex custody and high-asset divorces, I often build the use of a private judge into the case strategy I develop for clients.
What’s the difference between a private judge and a public judge?
When you file for divorce, your case is registered in the court system’s public data bank. A judge who hopefully has familiarity with the complicated laws of divorce (and wasn’t recently transferred from traffic court) is assigned to your case. If you are unable to resolve disputes with the opposing party, you are required to file pleadings with the court, attend court proceedings, and in some instances, testify before the judge. You might even need to testify on multiple occasions. Judges will make temporary and then final orders regarding the outstanding issues in your case. Unfortunately, because of budget cuts, fewer judges assigned to the family law department, and the magnitude of the number of divorces filed, it may take a very long time for your case to be heard and decided. In some instances, one hearing can play out on non-consecutive dates over several months. Also, because of the number of family law litigants in the system, you have almost no opportunity for the judge to get to know the real you (however in some cases, that could be a positive thing).
A private judge or commissioner is usually a retired family law judge who has spent many years on the family law bench and has lots of experience under his or her belt. They have a verifiable track record and your attorney can advise you whether or not they would be a good fit to preside over your case. Because you are in a more informal setting, the judge will have the opportunity to get to know you. Also, from a client’s perspective, it is much more easy to testify in an office setting than a public courtroom. Finally, because their caseload is so much less than a sitting judge’s, private judges have more time to devote to your case.
Private vs Public judge- Who is more trustworthy?
Clients are often concerned that private judges can be “bought”, especially if one attorney uses them a lot. However, private judges are required to disclose the number of cases on which they have worked with opposing counsel in the past; this gives you an opportunity to discuss the issue with your attorney to decide whether the judge can remain impartial. My experience is that private judges do a good job of maintaining their neutrality and objectivity despite their prior relationships with counsel. Obviously if they showed favoritism to a handful of attorneys, other clients would not hire them.
Another frequently expressed concern is that you have to pay for a private judge. Private judges may have high hourly rates, but you more than make up for the investment by consolidating your case into a matter of consecutive hours or days. All that time waiting for your case to be heard, plus related expenses for your attorneys and professional witnesses can add up quickly.
Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Texas are among the states that encourage and support the use of private judges in order to ease the pressures within their court systems and better serve the public interest.
At the end of the day, in addition to the savings of money and time, one of the most valuable benefits of hiring a private judge is the peace of mind of knowing someone took the time to truly listen to your side of the case before making a decision that will affect you and your loved ones for the rest of your lives.