We recently interviewed Dianna Gould-Saltman, a former family lawyer turned judge. She reflected on her career path, becoming a judge and how family lawyers can better their own practices.
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What do you think it takes to make a good judge? What do you believe are the qualities you bring to the job and ones you still need to work on to become a better one?
Well, I came to the family law bench with 25 years of experience in practicing family law, so that’s helpful, but probably not very common of those who sit in family law. Certainly having knowledge of the law is helpful, but it’s neither sufficient nor exclusive. Being a good listener and time manager is critical when we have – as we do in California – substantial budget cuts for the courts. Our dockets are getting longer, so we have less of an opportunity to allow people to tell their stories in court as they might if I had half as many cases before me in a day.
Being able to strike that fine balance between allowing people the opportunity to tell their story fully so they feel that they have been heard, and not being in a position where the last ten cases have to be continued on another day is always a fine-tuning balancing act.
Can you tell us a little bit about the mental and actual process of becoming a judge in California?
I think that you have to be in a position where you’re ready to make a considerable change in the way you look at the law, because being a judge and a lawyer are very different jobs, and you don’t recognize that until you’re sitting here in a black robe. I will say that in terms of how it occurs – at least in California – 90% of us are initially appointed and that appointment comes from the Governor, generally through a vetting process through an appointment secretary. And in this case, the California State Bar also has a commission that does a vetting process.
So you have a lot of applications to fill out and interviews with people. They send out many questionnaires to hundreds of people in the community about their opinion of you as an attorney, and then you get more interviews about that sort of thing.
So even for the 90% of us who are appointed, it’s a six-year term, and you’re appointed to replace either a new judge opening, which is more rare, or somebody who’s either retired, been elevated or changed positions. As an example, I took over from somebody who retired, and she still had two and a half years left on her term. I had to complete that term before needing to run for election.
And at that point, if you’re a sitting judge and nobody contests you, then you don’t even appear on the ballot and you instantly have another six years. If somebody does pull out papers to contest you, then you’re in a fully contested election. About 10% of judges run for election as a first instance. They were not appointed by the Governor, but chose to run in a contested election in the first place.
Is there anything that you’ve observed family lawyers doing that could be improved, in terms of moving things through the court, making it easier for judges to assess cases and make better decisions?
I would say preparation is key, to know your case backwards and forwards. Better yet, know the other side’s case backwards and forwards too, and the best way to do that is probably by meeting and conferring with the other side before you ever approach the counsel table.
If I felt that people had really met and conferred and resolved all of the things that they could have, and what I had left was what really required a judicial determination, then it would be very easy for me to make that call. When I feel that the only reason they’re in front of me is because they haven’t spoken with each other in the first place, I sort of feel like I’m there as a referee, not a decision-maker, and that is not so helpful.
Judge Gould-Saltman was appointed by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Los Angeles Superior Court bench in 2010. Prior to her appointment Judge Gould-Saltman practiced family law for 25 years, 18 as a Certified Family Law Specialist. She is a Fellow of the American and International Academies of Matrimonial Lawyers.