The Elder Court: Interview with Judge Joyce Cram

What was the impetus behind the creation of Contra Costa’s Elder Court?

We knew that it was important to have a court that would deal with the needs of the elder population. We had incoming Presiding Judge Mary Ann O’Malley contact people involved in the senior community. We started having task force meetings to ask them if they were interested in helping and, if so, what they would want it to look like. There was a lot of enthusiasm in the community, and we knew it was something that the court and public needed.

Judge Joyce Cram with Nick Casper

We used Alameda’s model as a starting point, which only has criminal cases and restraining orders involving elder abuse. From there we made it into a calendar that has every possible elder-related case. Criminal cases, conservatorships, financial abuse, physical abuse, civil cases, restraining orders, small claims… everything that relates to the senior comes into my court at some point.

How does a case get to the Elder Court?

It comes in different ways. The criminal cases come automatically because the district attorney has what’s called vertical filing, with one DA handling elder abuse cases. Some come directly from other judges. For instance, there are domestic violence cases in family law that may have an elder component and the judge who reviews the temporary order puts it on my calendar. The civil cases usually come after the first case management conference. Finally, lawyers can request to come directly to Elder Court.

What are some unique elements of the Elder Court?

We have Senior Peer Counselors that come from County Health Services. They will meet with the seniors before the hearing and tell them where they’re going to sit before they are called, what papers to show the judge and when to speak. After the hearing, they will make reassurance calls to make sure the elder understood what happened. A lot of times if you are self-represented, senior or not, you have no idea what just happened when you got the order. So there are reassurance components before and afterward.
We also have the Senior Help Center. That’s where seniors find help to fill out paperwork, such as an application for a restraining order. It’s aimed at self-represented seniors. So if somebody comes into my court and they need help with paperwork, they don’t have to do anything except walk right down the hall.

How did it come about that you ran the Elder Court? Have you been involved since Day 1?

Yes, Judge O’Malley asked me to do it. She knew she needed someone who would be interested in it and who would be willing to take on all the multiple tasks of civil, criminal, probate, restraining orders and small claims. As soon as I heard about it, I was excited.

Was there training with people involved in Geriatrics?

Yes, one of our faculty members was a geriatrician from UC Irvine. She had a course on the aging brain and the aging body. For example, there are certain things to look for to determine if there is physical abuse. Is it bruising from physical abuse, or is it bruising because the skin gets thinner as we get older, etc…? She also covered issues concerning mental capacity.

When is Elder Court in session?

Every Tuesday morning. We have a diverse calendar. At 8:30 the criminal calendar is called. We also call the civil cases at that time. At 8:45 are conservatorship cases and other probate cases. At 10:00 is the restraining order calendar. We calendared those at 10:00 on purpose. It is difficult for someone who may be old and frail to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, take their medications and be alert by 8:30. There is evidence that 10:00 is an optimal time for alertness for seniors. We have evidentiary hearings at 10:30, and those might be the preliminary examinations with the elderly victim, or even to preserve testimony if there is a risk that the victim will die before trial.

Are there other elements that set Elder Court apart from a typical courtroom on a day-to-day basis?

There is a very collaborative approach to the cases. Oftentimes a criminal case will have a companion civil case. Usually, the civil case is told to wait until the criminal case resolves because of the Fifth Amendment privilege. In Elder Court, we bring everybody together at the same time and try to negotiate a resolution that the DA, the defendant, the attorneys and the victim can live with…we try to get a global settlement. We have been very successful at doing this far faster than the other way, which can take years. Sometimes people don’t have years.

Since its inception, have other counties approached Contra Costa about its Elder Court?

Absolutely, and we are thrilled. We have gone to roundtables in Northern and Southern California. We were asked to fly to Buffalo and Erie County will be setting up an elder court. A judge from Chicago is meeting with me – Chicago is planning on a whole Elder Division. We are considered a mentor court, so part of our mandate is to let other court systems know about Elder Court and what it can do.

Financially, how does Elder Court work during the tough economic times of the judicial system?

Some courts say they wish they could have an elder court, but they don’t because they think it will cost them money. One of the messages I bring is that you can do it without additional resources. It would be nice, and we could certainly use case managers, if we had money to do it. But we don’t, so all it is is just a reallocation of resources.

What makes your assignment special to you?

I really enjoy being able to take a case and resolve it to the benefit of everybody who is in the courtroom. It is nice to see the restoration of dignity to the seniors and to their bank account. A lot of seniors are very independent and worked hard all other lives. They need their nest egg and when I can get some or all of it back, the senior can return to living independently once again.

— Nick Casper is an associate at the Walnut Creek law firm Casper, Meadows, Schwartz and Cook and he also serves on the CCCBA Board of Directors.

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