Judge Asha Jackson, Chief Judge Dekalb County Superior Court, sat down with Kimberlee Jones to discuss family law proceedings from the perspective of the bench.
Chief Judge Jackson started her legal career as an associate attorney at Carlock, Copeland, and Stair, LLP where she made partner. She was also a partner at Barnes and Thornburg, LLP before being appointed to the bench by Gov. Nathan Deal.
JUDGE JACKSON SHARES HER VIEW FROM THE BENCH
It’s very difficult when families split apart. That’s not something that anybody wants to experience, but it happens, unfortunately. As a result, I commonly see divorce cases with issues concerning the division of marital assets, the division of property, as well as child support matters.
Child support is a major issue if the parties that are splitting up have children. Then there are also issues of termination of custody and visitation. These can be very contentious issues for the court to resolve, but I have an understanding, especially being a person who has my own family.
My approach is to let the parties know that I understand how difficult it is to be in their position. I then try to get them to shift focus to their issues so that it becomes like a business transaction. This enables us to remove some of the emotion from the court hearing and get to a place where they can reach an agreement. This doesn’t mean getting everything they want in the situation, but it means coming up with a solution that both parties are able to live with. It takes a lot of redirecting.
MANAGING THE EMOTIONAL ASPECTS OF FAMILY LAW PROCEEDINGS
When you are in practice, you are not just an attorney. You are also a counselor; and sometimes that role comes into the court proceedings. As a judge, you have to rely on the attorneys to help you through the process—to help counsel their clients, to signal to the court when they think perhaps we’re going to talk about an issue that could trigger an emotional response from a party.
I try to plan my calendar such that, if it is going to be a highly contentious case, and if there are going to be very emotional issues; I allow a space for that to happen. I also do some redirecting to try to get people to talk about the things that they agree to first, and then we spend the bulk of our time with the things that they don’t agree on. But again, the shift is really more of a counseling shift to try to get people to look at the issues like a bank transaction.
You don’t want to simplify the years of experiences that the parties have had with one another, but if you can get them to shift their focus, you can get a lot done and you gain a lot of leeway in trying to resolve the issues and remove some of the emotion.
No matter how professional I am or how professional the parties are trying to be or their attorneys are trying to be, life happens. It just does and, unfortunately, family law issues, particularly the ones that can become contentious, like divorce cases that involve people’s children can bring out the worst in people. I have heard amazing and incredible allegations that parties have made against one another. This is where redirecting comes in. I will say, ‘You know there’s a record of what we’re doing here. Do you want your children to see you behave this way and see you say these things about their mother or their father?’ That is a really good tool for defusing a very contentious situation.
THE ROLE OF ATTORNEYS IN FAMILY LAW PROCEEDINGS
Attorneys sometime take on the personality of their clients, but the really good attorneys understand that to be truly helpful to their clients, they need to get their issues heard by the judge and need to be very clear and concise about what it is they’re asking the court to do within the confines of the law. Attorneys also play a huge role in redirecting the emotional energy that comes along with these types of cases.
The family law bar is a very tight-knit, very close bar. It’s a large bar in the state of Georgia, but they are very professional people who have to work together. Unlike in other types of litigation, at any given point, they can be the petitioner or the respondent. Because there’s no clear cut plaintiff or defendant, and because they have to work together, they just do—I think—often times, a better job being congenial as a bar to one another and helping the court to help their clients to resolve their issues.
ADVICE FOR PEOPLE APPEARING IN FAMILY PROCEEDINGS
Judges are people too, and we run a docket that we just, quite frankly, don’t have time to hear and do everything that we would want to do if we had the time. As a result, having a very organized presentation, knowing the lay of the land, and knowing how things should proceed, goes a long way, particularly when you’re asking the court to do something for you.
Now as clerks, we’re duty bound to follow the law, so we may like you and we may agree with you—and I think all lawyers and litigants—would have to understand that, but we have to follow the law.
One point of advice is that it goes a long way for you winning points with the court if you are prepared, and if you know the law. There are so many people who will come in and tell you their opinion about what they think should happen, but they’ve not researched, and they don’t advance the law for the court to consider. But I want to emphasize that it’s important that attorneys know and advance the law.