Courtrooms can be destructive to families. That was the premise Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Norman Davis used in the summer of 2004 when he started massive reforms to Family Court.
The Arizona Supreme Court asked Davis to streamline the system after an independent study showed that Family Court operations were just average.
Davis had watched divorce proceedings widen the division between spouses and trap and traumatize children. So he went to work. Since then, cases have been flying through the system. The number of pending cases in the department dropped from 19,638 in July 2004 to 12,279 in December 2006.
Davis said he wanted to get families — especially children — to the stability that lies beyond the court process.
He saw several ways to speedier justice: group similar cases and deal with them similarly, cut out unnecessary and laborious steps, and hand the court calendar over to the people.
“Usually people shy away from divorce law,” Davis said. “There’s not a lot of happiness in divorce law.”
But since the changes, Davis said families, attorneys and court staff have been happier.
He said judges haven’t shirked as much from their rotations to the Family Court bench. The court navigator — who accepts questions and complaints — told Davis she gets fewer angry calls. One 30-year veteran on staff said she was thinking twice about retiring because now she really feels like she’s helping people.
In the Old Court House on Wednesday, Davis sat within dark-wooded chambers rumored once to have belonged to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The tall, blond grandfather of nine spoke modestly of his role in the reforms.
“I’m best on the back row complaining to the people in the front,” he quipped.
But others laud his efforts.
“We congratulate him for the important work he does for the court,” said Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, head judge for Maricopa County Superior Court, in a news release.
At a statewide conference of family law judges, lawyers and legal professionals this year, Davis received an award for “Outstanding Contribution to Family Law in Arizona.”
Perhaps most flattering is that other courts are following suit.
In early February, Davis shared his success stories with southeastern states as a featured speaker at the American Judicature Society conference in Houston. He said court officials in Hawaii and California have also shown interest in his reforms.
Though changes were major, Davis said the transition wasn’t difficult.
“I don’t want to say it’s a Pollyannaish world,” Davis said. “But it’s been very easy.”
Family Court cases are now divided into three categories: dismissed cases, uncontested cases and contested cases.
Davis said 25 percent of cases are dismissed. These include cases in which the party who files the case chooses not to follow through with it.
About 50 percent of cases are uncontested. In these cases, either the defendant doesn’t show up or agrees with the plaintiff.
The court calendar was turned over to the public for uncontested cases. After the mandatory 60-day “cooling off” period, the plaintiff can choose his or her own hearing day on the Internet or by telephone. Davis said the cases are pretty evenly distributed day-to-day.
During the filing process, court staff is available to assist with child support calculations and to check that paperwork is filled out correctly.
Interactive forms are also available online.
Davis said such user-friendly improvements are especially important because 80 percent of people choose to represent themselves rather than hire an attorney.
Davis said calendar control and easy access to a “live person” are the public’s favorite new features of the system.
Once case documents are submitted, the court can review them electronically.
Cases that once took six to eight weeks to resolve can now be handled in a day, Davis said.
The last 25 percent of cases are contested. Often an agreement cannot be reached and attorneys are involved.
Traditionally, these cases proceeded just like other civil cases, involving lengthy discovery periods and familywide dirt-slinging.
“We recognized that the civil discovery process is flawed for family court,” Davis said.
Now, the parties must come to court within 30 days after the defendant submits a response. On the date they select, parties meet with a member of the court staff — an attorney case manager — and discuss settlement.
Topics are limited to the five legal issues that fall within the court’s purview: custody, property, child support, spousal support and debt.
If the parties can’t agree, then a firm trial date is set and related issues are fully addressed. Will the trial involve child custody? Are there drug issues? Will expert witnesses be involved?
All trial preparation is done in one sitting.
The parties just have a story to tell, Davis said, noting that they’ll do the same amount of preparation for trial whether it’s a week later or a year later.
The sooner the better.
“Delays destabilize families,” Davis said, especially for kids and financially.
With the new system, what once took five to six months now takes 30 days, he said.