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Rookie Judges to Family Court

November 16, 2009 permalink

An article from Pennsylvania shows that family court is staffed by the most inexperienced judges. Once they gain competence, they move on to more prestigious areas of jurisprudence.



Experts question judicial tradition of putting new judges in family court

By Bobby Kerlik, TRIBUNE-REVIEW, Monday, November 16, 2009

With five lawyers taking seats on the Allegheny County bench in January, most are expected to begin in family court, the traditional starting place for new judges.

But judges and advocates worry that tradition robs the division of experience when the caseload of juvenile matters, divorces, adoptions and custody disputes increases.

"In a way, it sends a message that family court isn't as important," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a court reform organization. "It's a national trend to put newer judges in family court. A lot of judges after they've been there don't want to stay."

Of the current 43 Common Pleas judges, family division ranks last in judicial experience. Among family court judges, the average length of time on the bench is 5.6 years. That's less than half the experience in criminal division — 11.9 years — the next closest.

Orphan's Court leads the group with an average of 17.5 years per judge.

The county president judge and the state Supreme Court decide on judicial assignments. Common Pleas President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel did not return phone calls.

Judges and court administrators disputed the idea that family division is viewed as less important. Family court has gone from six judges a dozen years ago to 13 today, said Ray Billotte, county court administrator.

He noted only one of the three newest judges — Michael Marmo — went to family division, while judges Joseph Williams and Judith Olson were assigned to criminal and civil divisions respectively. All three were appointed Gov. Ed Rendell to fill open slots. Williams won election to a 10-year term two weeks ago.

"We look at the workload and determine where judges are needed," Billotte said.

The number of judges hearing those cases could increase to 15 in January, family division Administrative Judge David Wecht said.

"Over the last couple of years, the moving out of this division has slowed compared to what it had been," Wecht said. "There's an increasing recognition of the importance of this work."

State Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, who served nearly 10 years in Allegheny County family court, said new judges typically go there because judges with more experience in other divisions don't want to go there.

"In Allegheny County people always try to accommodate where sitting judges want to go," Baer said. "There's a transition period every lawyer goes through before they become a fine judge. It would be better if experienced judges wanted to go there but that's not the way it is. There is no perfect system."

In addition to Williams, the newly elected judges are Arnie Klein, Susan Evashavik DiLucente, Don Walko and Phil Ignelzi.

"I really don't know where I'll be going. I'm too happy to have won. I've practiced in all the divisions so none are foreign to me," said Klein. "I'll work hard wherever it is."

Jay Blechman, the former chairman of the family section of the state bar association, said family courts can provide a fertile training ground for new judges because they're forced to make several decisions a day, such as divorce distributions, that help them to learn to be a trial judge.

"If you have 20 cases a day for (protection-from-abuse orders) while at the same time handling child custody and conciliations, it's an opportunity to have different kinds of cases," Blechman said.

Common Pleas Judge Joseph M. James, whose five-year term as president judge ended in January, said he tried to slow departures from the family division bench.

"It's not good policy. We needed to keep people there so it's not a revolving door," James said. "We made a conscious effort to have judges stay a minimum of two or three years so the cases they had could be resolved."

Common Pleas Judge Jill Rangos, who served in family division from 2003 until she was moved to criminal division last year, said many of the cases are emotional.

"It's really hands-on issues there that affect people's lives," she said. "It makes it a difficult place. The judges that tend to stay are truly dedicated to helping people. There are long days and it can be a stressful environment. The hardest things I've had to do in my life are taking babies out of mothers' arms. Day after day, that tears you apart."

Bobby Kerlik can be reached via e-mail or at 412-391-0927.

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review