“How Are Family Law Judges Chosen In California?”

For most people, family law procedure can be confusing. Many times, litigants are unhappy with the judge, and I often get questions about how judges get selected for family law.

In California state court, the judges are elected. This means they are on the ballot and any qualified attorney can challenge them for the seat. As a practical matter, most of the time the Governor (at the moment, Jerry Brown) appoints a judge to fill a vacant seat and then they run unopposed. If the seat is unopposed, you will not see the judge on your ballot.

However, sometimes the seats ARE contested, and then you will vote on a county-wide basis for which person gets the job.
Every county has a “presiding” judge. This is the judge who controls what courtroom each judge sits in and what kind of cases are assigned to that judge. This is the person who assigns a judge to hear family law cases. In larger counties, there is also a presiding family law judge, which is under the overall presiding judge but controls most of the assignments and flow of cases in the family law department.

Family law is contentious and emotional—many judges do not want the assignment to family law, and will only hear family law cases if they get assigned there over their own wishes. Other judges view it as a public service, and spend several years there trying to solve the problems and cases before them to the best of their abilities. Other judges genuinely like family law and enjoy the challenges that you get both on legal issues and on issues of proof during hearings.

Family law, by its nature, is going to leave one side (sometimes both) unhappy. There is only so much money and property to be split up, only so much time with the children, and only so much income to go around. It’s not a happy process. Because of this, I believe that the percentage of people who feel the judge was biased against them is one of the highest of all practice areas. In my experience, this is simply not true. Most judges are simply trying to come to a fair result.

The one danger area in family law to be aware of, however, is first impression. If you come across badly, for whatever reason, a family judge will often remember that, and it will make the rest of your case more difficult. If a judge has gotten the idea that you are difficult, don’t like to co-parent, or are hiding money, then you need a plan to show the judge that this impression is not true. There are times I am hired on a case simply because the client feels like he or she has gotten off on the wrong foot with the judge, and doesn’t know how to fix it.

Bottom line: judges are people too, who have a hard job to do. Giving them all the information they need to make their decisions is always the key to getting a good result.

DISCLAIMER: All legal principles quoted are valid as of the date of writing in the State of California. However, you should NEVER base your actions on a legal article, blog, or internet story, as facts in real life are complicated. You should have your case evaluated by an attorney experienced in the area of law needed for your case. In addition, there are often exceptions and potential changes to results that occur due to facts that you may think are trivial or unimportant. This article should not be taken in any way as legal advice on your specific legal matter.

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