FAMILY LAW STATE OF THE COURTS 2019
by Claudia Silverman
Judge Liebmann reported:
The Judicial Council recently completed a new statewide workload study. Notably, the workload of the Ventura County bench requires seven more judges than we currently have. While the court is twelfth largest in the state, we are fourth in number of filings per judicial position, and fifth in dispositions among all cases, not just in family law. (Family law statistics, interestingly, are not applicable or meaningful, because they track only new cases and cases dismissed or going to judgment, not pre- or post-judgment RFOs.) Ventura County bench officers handle 25 percent more work than the Judicial Council believes is appropriate. Judge Liebmann observed that this is made possible because “we have a good bench and we work hard.”
Ventura County will receive one of the 25 new judge seats allocated by the Legislature in next year’s budget, but that seat is not likely slated for the Family Law division because other divisions have greater need.
Fiscal Health of the Court
The Court’s fiscal health has gradually improved since the last recession budget and staff cuts. While the Legislature and Governor restored some of our funding in recent years, the court sees no prospect yet of restoring family law hearings at the Simi Valley courthouse.
Though the filing windows are not at their pre-recession operating times, electronic filing has largely made the closing time filing rush a thing of the past. Before implementation of electronic filing, the court received about 60 fax filings per month in civil; now there are over 1,400 electronic filings per month. Family law receives about 400 electronic filings per month.
Staff at the filing windows changes periodically. The court has long had a policy of cross-training staff to provide redundancy and back-up when a particular division experiences unexpected workload, and to provide opportunities for staff advancement. The downside is the learning curve as someone learns new skills. If there is a problem at the filing window or elsewhere in the system, Judge Liebmann counseled not to hesitate to speak to a supervisor; if the supervisor is not present, ask to speak to the manager. Supervisors and managers are there to make sure that things are done right and to remedy problems that may arise.
Family Law Facilitator’s Office
Also known as the Self-Help Center, this office has had a busy year. They have brought on additional staff through an Innovation Grant from the Judicial Council. The Center is now conducting webinars each week about family law proceedings. The webinars are very successful, and the staff attorneys have presented talks on the program at two statewide conferences in the past three months.
In addition, the facilities at the Juvenile Justice Center were remodeled and the hours expanded – the Family Law Facilitator’s office there is now open five days a week. Room 30 is scheduled for a complete overhaul – it was previously the dependency court and has never really been adequate for its present use. Judge Liebmann applauded the extraordinary volume of assistance provided by this office: as of the date of the presentation, Sept. 17, the Family Law Facilitator’s Office had already served approximately 9000 litigants.
Family Court Services
Managing Attorney Alfonso Martinez is very approachable and open to your suggestions and concerns. Court supervisor Vince Morda has retired and been replaced by Brian Adams. For the foreseeable future, Adams will be both supervising the other mediators and also conducting mediations. “He will be busy,” remarked Judge Liebmann appreciatively.
Judge Liebmann acknowledged the hard work of the court secretaries, who tirelessly field calls from the “pro pers, attorneys, attorney’s staff, experts, significant others, and officious intermeddlers,” while also scheduling ex partes and preparing and processing orders. The judicial assistants and bailiffs are also crucial to the operation of the court, and work very hard.
Newest on the bench is Commissioner Judy Rhoades, presiding over Courtroom 34. She has been doing a marvelous job carrying the load in the most high-volume courtroom in the Family Law Department.
Judge Michael Lief was introduced to the family law bar about one year ago. His performance over the past year has shown that he is more than up to the task; he has fully demonstrated his grasp of and commitment to the family law assignment.
Judge Liebmann noted that he has known Judge Johnson for many years – “I remember litigating cases against her when some of you were in preschool.” She is truly an all-star.
Judge Smiley “absolutely epitomizes the family law judge. The superlatives do not do him justice. Year after year I struggle to find a way to convey the absolute awe I hold him in and to express the respect and admiration I have for him.”
Proposed Changes to Local Rules
One of the proposals is to revise Rule 4.05, which governs electronic filing. There will be a number of proposed limitations, including a page limit of 200. This limitation was inspired by an attorney who “lodged” a 2,000-page deposition transcript. Judge Liebmann encourages all to review the Judicial Council website for proposed changes to the California Rules of Court and forms and to make comments if appropriate. “I think we have all had the experience of seeing a new or revised mandatory form and questioning why someone, anyone, thought the change was a good idea. If no one pays attention to proposed changes or gives intelligent input, these things will continue to happen.”
The new rules will take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Civility and Professionalism
Noting that there have been no groundbreaking new family law cases or statutes to discuss this year, Judge Liebmann turned his attention to declining civility in our practice. Although the professionalism and cooperation that attorneys show to one another “has been the hallmark of the Ventura County Bar and has distinguished it from some of our nearby counties,” Judge Liebman noted a “slow but accelerating erosion of that ethos.” He expressed dismay at the noticeable increase in the number of personal comments about opposing counsel as well as the number of requests for Family Code section 271 sanctions “due to opposing counsel taking a different view of how the case should proceed. It is not a good trend.”
Judge Liebmann started thinking about this topic while reading Wendy Lascher’s article in the September CITATIONS about recognizing the importance of the quality of our lives outside of work. “Remember,” Judge Liebmann said, “you belong to an ancient and honorable profession. You are officers of the court. Please act as such. And if you encounter someone who is not living up to the principles of the profession – do your absolute best to model fitting behavior rather than responding in kind.”
Claudia Siverman is a member of CITATIONS’ editorial board. She is a Family Law Specialist, certified by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. She may be reached at (805) 981-3908.
FAMILY LAW COMMISSIONER JUDITH RHODES: GIVING THE COMMUNITY A VOICE 2019
by Claudia Silverman
At last achieving a goal formed during childhood, Judith Rhodes has been appointed to the Ventura County Superior Court as a Family Law Commissioner. As a teen growing up in the South Bay, the future Commissioner often observed proceedings in the Courtroom of Judge George Perkovich, who was her mentor and neighbor. Commissioner Rhodes decided at that young age that she wanted to become an attorney and possibly a judge. “I have wanted this for a long time, and was very persistent to get this job,” Commissioner Rhodes said.
Commissioner Rhodes’ path to judicial office has been impressive. She was a family lawyer in private practice for 30 years. She frequently served as a Judge Pro Tempore in the Ventura Superior Court’s Family Law Division and was a member of the court’s Minor’s Counsel Panel for many years. A Certified Family Law Specialist, she was also recognized as a “Southern California Super Lawyer” for the three years preceding her appointment to the bench.
With her background as a Judge Pro Tem, Commissioner Rhodes was certainly well-prepared for the challenges of judicial office. She graciously offered that the transition to judgeship has been made easier by the support system offered by her colleagues on the bench as well as her husband Randy Rhodes, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge for the past 23 years.
Currently assigned to Department 34 of the Ventura County Superior Court, Commissioner Rhodes handles some of the most difficult cases in family court: domestic violence restraining orders, civil harassment restraining orders, and child support cases. Ninety percent of the litigants in her courtroom are self-represented. Acknowledging that in restraining order matters she must rule against one party or the other, Commissioner Rhodes’ goal is to make sure that everyone who walks out of her courtroom “feels they have been listened to, regardless of the outcome. The most satisfying part of my job is that I am able to give the community a voice.” Apparently this openness is appreciated by the litigants who appear before her. “Most people who leave my courtroom say ‘thank you,’ and I am grateful for that,” she said.
One of the more surprising and heartbreaking aspects of the Commissioner’s caseload involves numerous children age 12 and over seeking restraining orders against other children (often classmates) for bullying. In these cases, Commissioner Rhodes is vigilant about protecting children’s rights and privacy and takes special care to be sure that each child’s story is heard. She commits to painstaking review of the evidence, which often includes testimony of teachers, other adults and children, as well as photos and videos, social media posts, and other shared information between children. These cases are sadly all too common in her courtroom – she hears three to four such matters each week. Commissioner Rhodes believes that her background as an appointed attorney for children prepared her to handle these cases with the compassion and care that vulnerable child litigants deserve.
Commissioner Rhodes also hears cases brought under the Gun Violence Protective Order statute. Penal Code section 18100 et seq., effective January 1, 2016, permits a peace officer or immediate family member to obtain an ex parte emergency order or restraining order permitting, upon a showing of good cause, law enforcement’s confiscation of all firearms and ammunition in a person’s custody or control. Commissioner Rhodes states that his is a particularly effective tool to prevent domestic gun violence. Commissioner Rhodes believes that the statute’s protections are most safely and efficiently employed when the order is sought by law enforcement (as opposed to family members), thus permitting law enforcement to enforce the order and to immediately confiscate the weapons.
Commissioner Rhodes was the owner and principal attorney of the Law Offices of Judith D. Rhodes from 2002 until her appointment. Prior to that, she was an associate attorney at Van Sickle & Associates from 1999 to 2002, the Law Offices of Bobette Fleishman from 1996 to 1999, and the Law Offices of Cunningham and Lansden from 1994 to 1996. She was an associate and later owner and principal of the Law Offices of Judith Dahlman from 1988 to 1994.
Commissioner Rhodes is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, and earned her law degree from the University of West Los Angeles.
Claudia Silverman is certified as a Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Her offices are in Oxnard, California.
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