This has been a year of tragedy and transition for the Family Law Division.
On June 19th, we suffered the passing of our dear friend and colleague, Commissioner Jeffrey Huffaker. Jeff was a consummate judge and gentleman; equally loved by the bench and bar. His passing leaves a hole in the Court that cannot be filled and we continue to mourn him. I would like to thank Judges Cheryl Mills, Judy Craddick and Joyce Cram, as well as visiting Judges Lacy, Tiernan and Petrie, who graciously stepped in to help with the giant Pittsburg calendar during Jeff’s illness and after his passing.
We began the year attempting to reduce Commissioner Huffaker’s crushing workload by limiting filings in Pittsburg to only East County families with children. While this was beginning to take effect, it is all for naught. Given the dire budget constraints, we will officially shutterthe doors of the Pittsburg family law courtroom effective November 1st until better economic times allow us to once again improve service to East County residents. Until then, East County cases will be absorbed by the Martinez family law judges.
We are also about to suffer the departure of another treasured colleague. Our esteemed and longserving Commissioner Josanna Berkow is retiring on November 30, 2012. She is doing this in the face of budget cuts which will reduce the AB 1058 Child Support calendar from five days a week to only four days effective January 1, 2013. It is hard to imagine how we will manage without her passion and expertise.
The Tuesday through Friday Commissioner job will be filled by an as-yet-unnamed replacement. The department will be dark in December except for December 6th and December 10th through 14th, when Barbara Suskind has kindly volunteered to sit pro tempore.
This year, Judge Ben Burch saw his assignment change from hearing long, long trials to hearing both short cause and long cause matters three days a week. The remaining time he hears probate matters, in addition to regularly volunteering to help out with criminal matters.
We welcomed Judge Trevor White to family law, who, along with Judges Joyce Cram and Steve Treat, rounded out the division. All of our bench officers proved themselves to be dedicated, hard-working professionals, committed to serving Contra Costa families in difficult circumstances.
We were able to address the Bar’s concern about inordinate wait times to get a custody counseling appointment by filling three limited term custody counselor positions. As a result, the wait decreased from a high of fifteen weeks to the current low of only three and a half to four weeks. While the wait time may increase again at some point in the future, for now we anticipate that our limited term custody counselors will remain on board through at least June of 2013, thanks to the use of our reserve funds.
On January 2, 2013, we will welcome Judges Christopher Bowen, Barbara Hinton and Ed Weil as hearing officers in the Family Law Building and Judge White will move into Judge Burch’s family law/probate assignment. We will try something new with Judge Bruce Mills acting in part as a family law settlement judge and in part as an overflow criminal department.
There are many other changes coming. One of the most devastating is the upcoming loss of part of our court family – court reporters. Until further notice, beginning January 2, 2013, parties desiring a transcript will be required to arrange for private reporting services for all short and long cause matters, excluding those heard in the AB 1058 department.
In addition, effective November 12, 2012, the Clerk’s office will shorten its closing time from 3:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m., with exceptions for temporary restraining orders and other emergency matters which may be filed up to 3:00 p.m. Self-help services will follow the reduced 1:00 p.m. schedule and workshops for self-represented litigants will be cut back.
Given reduced staffing levels, we will eliminate Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO) filings at the Richmond Courthouse beginning on a date to be determined. The Family Law Division will most likely take on the DVRO’s and Civil Harassment hearings that had previously been heard in Concord and Walnut Creek. We anticipate that interpreters in DVRO cases will continue, using one-time Court Reserves this fiscal year, until an ongoing funding source can be identified. The staff of the family law division has been working tirelessly to implement this dramatic transformation.
Needless to say, many of these changes are a work-inprogress and details will have to be ironed out in the future. We ask for the Bar’s patience as we implement these changes. The long tradition of positive Bench-Bar relations continues unabated.
On behalf of the family law bench, I want to express our gratitude for the Bar’s impressive volunteer services for the Court and its ongoing willingness to collaborate. We’ll need it next year.
Filed Under: Spotlight