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SAN JOSE — Santa Clara County court officials envision a “unified” family court as a way to simplify the judicial system and provide a coherent approach to dysfunctional families and their legal problems in crunch budget times. But the idea hasn’t been embraced yet by some Santa Clara attorneys concerned about practicing before a single judge tasked with juggling family law, dependency, juvenile delinquency and domestic violence cases. The unified court is a pilot program now but could be expanded during the next year. “This job [unified family court judge] will demand a truly exceptional judicial officer adequately and competently versed in at least three areas of law,” said Santa Clara County Deputy Public Defender Sylvia Perez, who heads the office’s juvenile unit. Proponents argue that most families will be immeasurably helped by the ease of access and scheduling in a unified family court, not to mention the opportunity to work together with a single, well-versed jurist to resolve family problems that often stem from troubled relationships or addiction. But finding a judge who is up to the task and keeping him or her in that role will be the tricky part. Judges with experience in unified courts in other jurisdictions say unified family court programs can eventually succeed — but agree that the right judge is a key to success. “[You need] to get people committed to doing this kind of work and people who are willing to stick around,” said San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein, who heads the city’s unified family court. “To do the job you have to learn the statutes and the case law — but you also need to learn about the county and its support systems.” Feinstein concedes there were challenges in establishing a unified family court in San Francisco, but said that they were overcome. The city is among several jurisdictions, including Yolo, Los Angeles and Napa counties, that have transitioned to unified family courts. Feinstein said judicial education was a key to success. “To have a good unified court you need to make sure all of your bench officers are cross-trained so they can handle different matters,” she said. “But it’s not an insurmountable task. It can be accomplished.” When considering who should head up a unified court, Feinstein said, a presiding judge should find a jurist who not only is interested in the work, but willing to endure the stresses involved in what is considered a difficult assignment. “You don’t want to force people into these assignments because they are grueling,” she said. “The human misery and chaos you deal with on a daily basis can be pretty overwhelming. These are legal problems but they are also human problems.” Some attorneys have voiced concerns that having a single judge in family court would make them biased against certain defendants with pending criminal and family problems. For example, a judge hearing accusations of child abuse in a custody case could then have difficulty being impartial in a domestic violence case against the alleged abuser. But Feinstein argues that, in many cases, a single judge is best equipped to make the right decisions because he or she can review the information and cases together. “As a judge, the more information I have the better informed my decision will be,” she said. “There may be disagreements, but the more information, the better reasoned my decision will be.” SANTA CLARA’S CHOICE Superior Court Judge Dolores Carr is handling the pilot project for Santa Clara County. Carr, who was a family judge for four years and was recently reassigned to civil cases and the unified court project, said qualified judges are out there, noting that she has a background in family and civil law as well as prosecutorial experience. “Change is hard for people,” Carr said of resistance to the unified family court plans. “It’s an unknown. But our intention is to have as many stakeholders [in the program] as possible. We want this to be good for families and attorneys.” Carr anticipates slowly implementing any changes because of continued California budget cuts and a natural apprehension among lawyers to institutional change. “I’m trying to see what I can develop on my own, and I’m going to approach it piecemeal,” Carr said. “I’m going to take these small pieces and see if it’s going to work. “There should be nothing about the unified family court that harms or jeopardizes the rights of a criminal defendant or the rights of a family contesting custody. We will not change their rights or obligations in any way.” Presiding Judge Alden Danner, who said late last year that the unified family court would be a priority of his administration, attributed concerns about starting the program and selecting the right jurist to the “resistance of attorneys to go somewhere else or try something different.” “Criminal prosecutors like to be in the Hall of Justice, and family lawyers like to be in family court,” Danner said. “I always anticipated that there might be some concern that they [lawyers] are being asked to do something other than what’s traditional in their cases.”

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