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RUFFLED FEATHERS DON’T DISCOURAGE BASKIN COURT: Contra Costa County Superior APPOINTED: August 2002, by Gov. Gray Davis BORN: Feb. 23, 1953 LAW SCHOOL: Oliver Schreiner School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1978 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Judge pro tem and court-appointed private judge in Contra Costa County, 1992-2002. Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin wants to set the record straight. He gained some notoriety last year for coming down hard on a pro per litigant in family court who missed a filing deadline and failed to submit his evidence in writing ahead of trial exactly as Baskin required. His critics say the family court rules, which Baskin has enforced as the supervising judge, deny pro pers their proverbial day in court. And though Baskin wasn’t the first to ban direct oral trial testimony in favor of declarations � that requirement was on the books before he became a judge � his enforcement has made him a polarizing figure with the family law bar. “They’re just killing the messenger. That’s all I am,” the fifth-year judge said during a recent interview in his chambers at the Peter L. Spinetta Family Law Center in Martinez. In February, the California Supreme Court agreed to review the practice known as “trial by declaration,” and other rules tied to Baskin’s decision to enter judgment against the pro per in Elkins v. Superior Court, S139073. While Baskin doesn’t shy away from the critics who take issue with the trial rules, he said any controversy boils down to a basic misunderstanding about what they’re supposed to achieve. “Far from eliminating trials, [they] actually make the trial much more interesting,” forcing each side to focus on the key matters in dispute, Baskin said. “I’m confident that in the long term, people will see that these changes were long overdue.” Though many lawyers disagree with Baskin’s rules, the judge is credited for showing no hint of favoritism in court and for keeping a high standard of professionalism. He doesn’t allow people to use foul language in court, for example, but knowing things are bound to get tense anyway, he also doesn’t let children sit in on hearings. Solo practitioner Paula Lorentzen said her first appearance in Baskin’s courtroom was for a complex issue she expected would take several weeks to resolve. As she was packing up her bags, a clerk advised her Baskin would return in 15 minutes to announce his ruling. “Frankly, I’d never seen that before. It kind of blew me away,” Lorentzen said. Attorney Jean Greenbaum said Baskin comes prepared and keeps cases moving quickly. By not bantering from the bench, he also shows he’s sensitive to the way attorneys appear to their clients, she said. “When you’re in a courtroom with a client and the judge is having a conversation with the other attorney, you’ve got to explain to your client why that’s happening,” said Greenbaum, a relative newcomer who left New York to join a practice in Oakland. Some lawyers say Baskin’s professional standards are beginning to rub off on them. “You know darn well when you’re in his courtroom that he takes those rules seriously, so you try very hard not to bend them,” said Seymour Rose, who has practiced family law for 51 years. There are times, however, when Baskin will overlook the rules. Rose remembers a couple of times when Baskin has gone out of his way to speed up child custody orders. “That’s the kind of flexibility I respect in a judge. When there seems to be a need, he listens,” Rose said. “He’s not just a martinet who insists on doing things his way or the highway.” Baskin also sets aside time in his calendar so he can give people the option of having a full trial in his court the week after they first appear if children are involved. Though Baskin never practiced family law in Contra Costa County, he experienced the other side of a family law courtroom there a few years after moving to California, when he divorced his first wife. Baskin said that experience let him “see some of the glaring shortcomings [in family court], especially the speed with which we get to custody matters.” As supervising judge of the family court, Baskin has put in place some other rules intended to reduce costs for family court litigants, level the playing field for pro pers, and push more cases to settlement. Some have said those rules have had the opposite effect. One family law specialist, who asked not to be named, said family law attorneys feel like they have no input. “If he could present things differently, I think people would be a little more open to them.” A native of South Africa, Baskin immigrated to Northern California in 1986. The move disappointed his father, who ran a thriving law practice in Johannesburg and hoped Baskin would become the third generation to lead the family firm. Coming to the United States meant giving up the network of contacts Baskin had developed in South Africa and his position as a partner at the firm. Upon arrival, he joined the San Francisco firm then known as Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro as an associate. Baskin left Pillsbury in 1988 for a partnership in a Walnut Creek firm then known as Farrow, Bramson, Baskin & Plutzik, which specialized in complex litigation. He was appointed judge by Gov. Gray Davis in August 2002. Despite the firestorm caused by the rules Baskin has already enforced, he has volunteered for another year in family court and has more changes in store for next year. Beginning in January, the family court will begin issuing tentative rulings. To make the new system work, Baskin said he and other family law judges will have to be even stricter about filing deadlines than they are now. “The sloppy practice of just showing up in court and flinging papers at the judge will go out the window.” You can order past judicial profiles of more than 100 Bay Area judges here or by calling 415-749-5523.

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