If you’ve ever been involved in a court case in California, you may already know that the state judiciary system is backed up. In an effort to improve efficiency, the judiciary has devised a program in which non-judge “court commissioners” act as temporary judges, who are empowered to issue certain rulings in divorce and other cases. As a recent case out of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals makes clear, however, both parties to a divorce case have to agree to have a commissioner hear the case in order for a commissioner’s decision to be enforceable. The Court called that case “a prime example of the harsh consequences that result when a commissioner neglects, at the outset of the case, to obtain the parties’ consent.”
Husband and Wife were married for about eight years and had one child before separating in 2014. The couple later went before a court commissioner, who was charged with temporarily resolving issues related to spousal and child support, custody, and visitation. Following a hearing, the commissioner issued temporary orders in favor of Wife. When the spouses went back to court three months later, the commissioner asked each of them to sign a stipulation stating that they agreed to have their case heard by the commissioner and to be bound by her decisions. Husband declined, noting that the commissioner had already ruled against him.
The commissioner nevertheless proceeded with the case, finding that Husband and Wife had implicitly agreed to use the commissioner because they participated in the previous hearing and didn’t challenge her role in the proceedings at that time. She later issued a second judgement in Wife’s favor on issues related to the divorce.
Reversing the decision on appeal, the Fourth District disagreed. “While the jurisdiction of a court commissioner, or any other temporary judge, to try a cause derives from the parties’ stipulation, absent a proper stipulation the judgment or order entered by a court commissioner is void,” the Court explained. The Court acknowledged that the stipulation may be implied when a person “affirmatively participates” in a court proceeding and doesn’t object to a commissioner being involved until the proceeding is concluded. In this case, however, there was no reason to believe that Husband knew he was in front of a commissioner at the time of the hearing. He wasn’t presented with a stipulation form, and the orders issued in the hearing referred to the commissioner as “Judge.”
This case is a good example of the complicated rules that govern divorce and related litigation in California. It is vital that a person considering a divorce seek the guidance and counsel of an experienced attorney. A divorce lawyer can help you explore and weigh your rights and options in these cases.
If you’re considering divorce or are grappling with community property and other related issues in California, contact San Jose divorce lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve a wide variety of marital disputes. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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