The truth about family court judges

The truth about family court judges

If you’re going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not always going to like the conclusions you reach. If you like them all the time, you’re probably doing something wrong. – Antonin Scalia

There is a great deal of truth to Judge Judy Sheindlin’s infamous “It (family court) was sort of the dumping ground for morons and political hacks” interview assessment. Though they’re not in family court for now, Kane County judges John Dalton and Joe Grady are exactly the kind of “morons” Sheindlin was talking about.  

Dalton is the kind of sadistic psychopath that revels in other peoples’ misery, particularly when he inflicts it and Grady’s general contempt for the voters who put him in that position means he isn’t even qualified to ask if you want fries with that.

But the truth is the 16th Circuit’s current family court lineup is actually pretty good. Presiding judge Kim DiGiovanni has years of family courtroom experience and she truly tries to do the right thing. I’ve never heard a single complaint about Reggie Campbell, Keith Johnson maintains the kind of comportment that’s made him one of my favorite judges, and Alice Tracy has a solid reputation. I don’t understand some of Brad David’s rulings, but I’m never privy to the whole story, either and Larry Lobb is too new to make an assessment.

Of course, there are bad apples in every profession, and the fact I’ve singled out just two former Kane County family court judge failures is probably par for any circuit. But that persistent bad judge minority also means litigants bear some of the responsibility for ending up in front of one of Judge Judy’s “morons.”

Why? Because our jurisprudence system provides the plaintiff and respondent one free SOJ, or “substitution of judge” – no questions asked.

The problem is, while your average American wouldn’t consider purchasing a home, car, or even a flat panel TV without performing some sort of due diligence, they’ll just waltz into that family courtroom  without a care in the world court expecting everything to go their way.

To wit, one of my favorite emailers excitedly wrote me to say she’d been assigned to judge Dalton, but having read my columns, immediately issued a motion for an SOJ. I understand journalism has faded to the point where bad judges can operate with impunity, but news in legal circles travels very fast and even your local Bar Association can tell you which judges to avoid.

Better yet, simply review their ABA ratings.

When you consider the vast power family court judges wield, it would behoove any reasonable litigant to Google that possibility before taking one scant step into their courtroom. Because once you do, your SOJ option disappears.

While we’re on the subject, let me also stipulate that if you believe in any of the current court conspiracy theories, not the least of which is that family court judges are trafficking in children, then the best you should expect is supervised visits with your progeny.

Not to mention the expectations of even the best family court judges are patently absurd.

How is any human being, who has to juggle between 300 to 400 family court/paternity cases at any given point in time, supposed to unravel the underpinnings of your dysfunctional relationship and get it “right” every time? Settling your inevitably complicated personal life wouldn’t be easy even if you had Solomon’s full and undivided attention.  

Despite those persistent challenges, most family court judges tend to get it right – if not perfect.

But the most difficult part of donning the family court robe is this! You have to sit there – day in and day out – and watch two people, who loved each other to the point of creating life, do everything in their power to denigrate and tear their former significant other apart.

And that process can get downright brutal to the point where I start to feel an unnerving iteration of shellshock after just a couple of hours of observing family court. So, I can only imagine how it must wear on someone who has to contend with it eight hours a day, five days a week.

This is why judges rotate out of family court more quickly than civil, juvenile, or even felony court assignments. And the gratitude they often get for their more than reasonable efforts typically comes in the form of a flippin’ case of cancer.

Considering that reality, I can’t begin to understand why so many attorneys want to be a judge. You couldn’t pay me enough to do it.

If they manage to survive all of that, the family court bottom line is this. You know those judges are doing a good job when no one is happy with the rulings, not even the judge who issued them, as the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia aptly noted above.

Yes! I will be the first to take an errant judge to task because it’s every journalist’s job to provide the checks and balances required to rein in any form of boundless power. And the fact that the job is so difficult doesn’t excuse poor behavior on the part of those who so willingly sought it out. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize with and understand the inherent difficulties in being a judge in a family court setting.

It’s the kind of thankless and damned if you do or don’t job that most of us couldn’t begin to contend with.

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