Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Hire your own judge; you'll help the system and save in the long run

As I'm sure most of my readers know, wealth can be an awesome burden. Some of those who possess it cannot bring themselves mornings to get out of bed. Others may turn poutish or randy and become impossible to live with on the estate. If you've ever hitched your star to such a one, you'll know that's when it's time to set religion and vows aside and consider what's truly yours—in a divorce court.

But you think "The press is going to be all over this," and you wonder if it wouldn't just be better to take a little villa on the Côte d'Azur with Missy and let him go his merry way. Then you remember your appointment calendar and know that you will, eventually, be missed.

That's when you begin to consider all that divorce will imply—the media coverage, the paparazzi, the whispers and glances from neighboring tables when you go out to dine.

And you think of what will inevitably come out. None of it your fault, of course. How were you to know that that scion of a pioneer family of California golddiggers had a cucumber fetish? You might have been able to bear a carrot—but a cucumber? Not to mention that he keeps goats in the house.

At this point you stamp your pretty little foot and wonder what all this wealth is good for if you must get in line at a divorce court, filled as it is with the messy middle class lives of people who have not made wise choices. You are not among them and should not be considered as such.

Besides, you just can't wait the months and months it will take to get away from the son-of-a-bitch, while the rabble reveal their twisted little secrets that only they could possibly care about.

Finally you realize it's time to bite the cucumber. He'll be back from his business trip next week, and you want to have a surprise waiting for him this time. So you think who to call? Who was that Marvin What's-his-name that Buffy used last year? She came out of it very well and will never see another cucumber in her life—unless, of course, she wants to. And now that you think about it, it all went so quietly.

You give Buffy a call to get her lawyer's name, and she drops in your lap the most exquisite surprise—in California you can hire a private judge and bypass the divorce courts. At from $300 to $800 per hour it's a steal. You've paid more than that at the spa. "I really do live a blessèd life," you think fleetingly as you hang up on Buffy to dial Marvin.

Julie O'Shea reveals the in-crowd's secrets for obtaining the California divorce in The Recorder

Lawyers in the San Francisco Bay Area say they can hire a private judge for $300 to $800 an hour, and sometimes resolve a case within a couple of days. For the South Bay's many millionaires -- and even middle-class couples -- it's money well spent.

"The court system is awfully slow," says Paul Jacobs, a partner with Hammer & Jacobs in San Jose, Calif. "There is so much more flexibility with a private judge. It's more civil. They want to keep the lid on people getting out of control."

"The thing about people with wealth is they like privacy," adds Donelle Morgan, a partner with San Jose's McManis Faulkner & Morgan.

Morgan -- who once helped former San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana through a divorce -- said her clients seem to find a private judge's law office less intimidating than a courtroom.

And more intime, really.

.... Private judges hearing cases by stipulation are essentially granted all the powers of a sitting superior court judge, and hearings held in their offices remain public. Of course, the odds of a reporter or anyone else stumbling into one of these hearings is low. And when couples agree to arbitration or mediation before a private judge, only the final decree is public.

"It just seems like such a civilized manner for people who are going through divorces," Morgan said.

Yes, it really does. And who, if not the wealthy, should maintain standards?

Hiring private or retired judges to referee complex divorce proceedings is nothing new, but in recent years, it has become the norm rather than the exception.

Lawyers say this avenue is smoother, more efficient and personal and, in the long run, cheaper than family court.

"There was a big turn to private judges because of a concern with predictability." said Mia Mosher, an attorney with Marsten & Mosher, a family law firm in San Jose.

"It is really access to the court that is the biggest issue," says Mosher, adding that she sometimes has to wait eight months before she gets a trial date in Santa Clara County, Calif., family court, where six judges handle about 8,000 cases a year.

"Private judges are much better suited for settling [these] matters because they have time to take them on and research them," Mosher said.

Even at a low-ball $300 per hour most judges find that they have as much time as it takes.

"Most cases I do by telephone," says Donald King, ... now with the American Arbitration Association in San Francisco.

Private judging is becoming more common in part because the "court system has deteriorated," King says. "The most complex cases are going to the judge who knows the least about this law."

As things fall apart, it's comforting to know that wealth still has its options.

Neville Spadafore ... has been doing private judging in the South Bay for 15 years. He suspects the growing interest in private divorce proceedings comes from word of mouth.

Richard Berra, a private judge based in San Mateo, said the soaring divorce rate also has increased business.

Berra points out that lots of people in family court represent themselves, and criminal and civil dockets are overflowing. "The courts are so overwhelmed," he says.

He likes his job. "I find myself very fortunate that I am able to do it," he said. "I feel like we are assisting the court system."

Well, yes. When put in that light you realize that this is not a case of the wealthy being pampered by the rules of state government. After all, everyone is entitled to the same service if the litigant elects to pay for it.

If you really think about it you'll see that what the wealthy divorcé(e) is doing is nothing less than contributing to the public good—not, of course, through the larcenous mechanism of taxation whereby the court system might be improved, but by avoiding the system altogether, thereby saving it from additional burden.

And if the poor and middle classes would straighten our their lives, make wise choices, go to church and honor their vows, any remaining problem of an overburdened court system would practically solve itself.

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