Election of Family Court Judges

While I am not a proponent of electing our judges, with all Kentucky Family Court Judges facing election in November, the following post from Baton Rouge is timely. Many of our candidates will get less press. What is it that voters need to know to make informed decisions? I think a judge sitting in family court needs to have:
1. A thorough knowledge of family law;
2. An appropriate judicial temperament, which in presiding over a family court means no outbursts, no meltdowns, no demeaning of any litigant;
3. A demonstrative record over time of efforts to improve the family court system and to advance the law;
4. Respect of the lawyers who will be appearing before the court and respect of the citizens;
5. Awesome ability to administer huge caseloads and timely make decisions;
6. An overwhelming desire to protect children.
7. Forward thinking leadership and ideas on how to more effectively handle more cases with fewer resources and the bulging pro se docket;
8. A love of the law, and a commitment to improve the system of justice and the stability of our families.
In the old days, attaining the judiciary was the pinnacle of a stellar career. These days we see career jurists, and their passion and success has surprised and pleased many of the old-timers. I think all of the above criteria are equally applicable to practitioners seeking judicial office and judges who have been on the bench for many years.

Here's a reprint of the article published by The Advocate:

"Candidates for the soon-to-be vacant judgeship on Baton Rouge Family Court say the low-profile office is more likely to affect the lives of more Baton Rouge residents than any other court.

That’s because just about every person who has been divorced or has a family member or close friend who has parted ways with a spouse has ended up in Family Court, the candidates said.

On Sept. 30, voters in a large chunk of Baton Rouge will go to the polls to elect a judge to fill the final two years of the term of Family Court Judge Jennifer Luse, who is retiring.

If nobody wins a majority of the vote, the top two finishers qualify for a runoff on Nov. 7.

The four attorneys who qualified for the race are Pam Baker, Kathleen Richard Callaghan, Tom Gibbs and Melanie Newkome Jones.

Baker, Callaghan and Gibbs are Republicans. Jones said she considers herself an independent, but will appear on the ballot as having “no party.”

Candidates are allowed to register with one of five parties: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green or Reform, said Nancy Underwood, assistant director of elections for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office.

If candidates do not indicate a party affiliation, the words “no party” appear next to their names on the ballot, Underwood said.

People who run as candidates for a nonrecognized party have a blank space next to their names, she said.

The four Family Court candidates said that, if elected, they will search for ways to speed the judicial process while preserving a person’s right to a day in court.

Pam Baker
An attorney since 1984, Baker said she wishes the state would return to a system in which people first filed for legal separations before filing for divorces. The current system, which requires a spouse to file for divorce right off the bat, creates an immediate barrier to reconciliation.

Baker also said a new Louisiana law that forces couples with minor children to wait a year before getting their divorce finalized will create more litigation. Baker said more people will choose to have “fault trials” — or highly contentious hearings where one spouse accuses the other of horrible acts — in an attempt to shorten the lengthened process.

Baker said the legislative intent was to give people more time to reconcile, but the real result could create more troubling situations for divorcing couples.

Baker said that as a judge, she would place emphasis on keeping control of the courtroom, treat everyone with courtesy and serve the hours needed each day to get the job done.

It’s also important to listen because each case is different, she said.

“My family is not the same as your family and the judge needs to understand that,” Baker said.

She said it’s also important to handle matters quickly, especially for the children caught up in the divorce.

“The longer a case is pending, they can’t stop thinking about it or talking about it with their friends,” Baker said. “Moving a case along gives children the chance to move on with their lives.”

Kathleen Richard Callaghan
A former clerk for Luse, Callaghan said she has firsthand experience with how it feels as a litigant standing before a Family Court judge. She said her first husband “decided he wanted to be married to someone else” and filed for divorce.

“I felt very vulnerable. I wasn’t a lawyer at the time, and I never felt like I got my day in court,” Callaghan said.

She said one of the changes she would make would be to open the process and record status conferences between attorneys and judges. Many litigants see the attorneys go into the judge’s chambers and wonder whether their side of the story is being told, Callaghan said.

“I would want to figure out a way to burst the perception that deals are getting worked out behind closed doors,” she said.

Callaghan, an attorney since 1993, also said she would propose a pilot mediation program run by attorneys looking for continuing education credits in mediation. The program would encourage couples to work out their own divorce parameters instead of relying on the judge.

Another possibility of resolving problems is through collaborative divorces, which require mental health professionals to work with couples to get them beyond animosity in order to structure divorces.

“It took some time for me with my divorce, but one day I realized that there were some things that were not worth fighting for,” Callaghan said. “Once we started giving on those things, it became much easier, particularly for the children.”

Tom Gibbs
A lawyer since 1975, Gibbs said his “bread and butter” work has been in family law. He said he made the decision to run for judge during a religious retreat.

“After prayerful consideration, I felt like I could make a difference,” Gibbs said. “The opportunity arose and the decision was already made.”

Gibbs said he, too, would find ways to avoid the behind-the-scenes deals that leave many litigants wondering whether they got their day in court.

“That’s a common complaint in Family Court,” Gibbs said. “Ultimately, it’s their case and if they want their day in court they should get their day in court.”

Gibbs also said he would make himself available after court hours for lawyers and litigants with emergencies.

“Things don’t happen during normal business hours all the time,” he said.

The best interest of the children would remain his primary focus if he wins, Gibbs said.

Like Baker, Gibbs said he thinks the new state law requiring a one-year waiting period before divorces can become final will create more litigation in Family Court and end up not serving the Legislature’s intended purposes.

“Anything that prolongs the process isn’t good for anyone except for the lawyers,” Gibbs said.

The Legislature’s intention was to give people more time to reconcile, he said.

“It’s just a matter of passage of time. Once the parties get to a lawyer, they’ve already decided the marriage is over.”

Gibbs said he will bring the correct temperament and common sense to the court. And he said he has the experience of raising five children to draw upon when deciding what’s best for the children in cases before him.

Melanie Newkome Jones
A family law attorney for 15 years, Jones also is a certified mediator in civil law and family law. Jones also works as an arbitrator for cases in Baton Rouge City Court, is certified in collaborative divorce and has provided more than 300 hours of free legal work, primarily in Family Court matters, over the past three years.

“People don’t use mediation as much as they should,” Jones said. “The benefit is that people can take their own decisions into their own hands. Who knows better than the people involved?”

In her own practice, Jones said, she discusses the risks and benefits of mediation. If a couple can’t resolve matters, then they must go to court, she said.

As a judge, Jones said, she would encourage mediation because it is a growing trend throughout the state and country, but Baton Rouge hasn’t embraced the concept.

“At the same time, I would not push settlements in cases where people need to have their day in court,” she said.
Jones said her work as a mediator and arbitrator led her to make a run for judge. She also said the free legal work she has done has given her experience with clients from all walks of life.

She also has experience with divorce, Jones said. Her parents are divorced. And although her parents have “the perfect divorce” and there is no animosity, Jones said, there still are strains, especially for children.

“It’s like the death of the family for a child,” she said."

Thanks to John Crouch's post in the Family News Blog for the article.