Perhaps the most important person you'll deal with as you go to trial is the judge—just another human being, albeit one who has the power to make decisions for you and your spouse. In a small number of states, your case might be tried by a jury, but if not, a judge will decide the outcome. As the decider (trier of fact, in courtspeak), the judge listens, takes notes, sometimes asks questions, and when the case is over, makes a decision. Because the judge is also the referee, he will set the schedule of the trial, make rulings when the lawyers disagree, and rap the gavel if the courtroom gets out of control. You might have one judge throughout the case or several different judges until trial, at which time you will have only one judge.
Behind Closed Doors: How Judges Resolve Issues
While those going through divorce await trial, they often find themselves unable to resolve even the most mundane issues on their own. When that happens, the judge on their case gets involved. For instance, John wanted to have his sons spend the last three weeks of the summer with him so that they could visit his sister (their aunt) and her family, who were in the United States for only a short time. Sara—the boys' mother—had already enrolled them in summer camp for those same weeks. Because John and Sara could not agree on a solution to this conflict, their lawyers were asked to intervene. Discussions between the lawyers also went nowhere.
If you attend a court matter, keep in mind that you will be in front of the judge who might eventually try your case. Do your best to make a good impression. Speak in a conversational tone and do not display emotion or make threats. Even if the current judge will not try your case, you stand a better chance of winning a request if the judge is happy with your demeanor.
In most states, you must file an application to put an issue before a judge for a ruling. The application has to be made through a “motion” or “order to show cause.”
Finally, John's lawyer asked for a ruling from the judge. John brought a brochure from the summer camp, showing three sessions. He had contacted the camp and told the judge that the first and second sessions still had room for his sons. He explained that his sister, who lived in Spain, would only be in the United States for the last three weeks of the summer.
The judge immediately granted John his request. The cost to him? Less than $500 in legal fees. As an added bonus, he made a good impression on the judge (he had done his homework and had delivered his pitch calmly), whereas Sara seemed unreasonable and stressed. Not only would John get the boys when he wanted them, but he would also be walking into the upcoming trial with a reputation for reason, responsibility, and calmness.
Remember, if you have the same issue as John but lack an attorney, you are entitled to file an application with the court as a pro se to make the same request. If you do, be sure you have gotten as much legal guidance as possible beforehand—especially if your spouse has legal representation.
We suggest that if you have limited resources, you save them for a situation like this. If you are purchasing legal services a la carte, there is no better way to spend your limited resources than in pursuit of extra time with your children. And there is no question that such legal input will help you in the end.
How to Impress the Judge
Given the fact that your judge might be determining your fate and, if you have children, theirs too, making a good impression is vital. To make sure that you score points with this powerful figure, study the following helpful tips for appropriate behavior whenever you have occasion to be before your judge:
- Avoid gesticulating wildly with your hands. The judge might not remember the issues raised up until the trial, but if you had made a spectacle of yourself when before him, he might well remember that! Sometimes, it's hard to maintain control when you know your spouse is lying, but you have to do it.
- If your lawyer is present, it's best that you follow accepted courtroom protocol and not speak at all unless your lawyer instructs you to or the judge asks you a question directly. If you think your lawyer is missing an issue (or the boat), nudge her gently and ask if you can speak to her for a minute. You can also write a note and push it over to your lawyer.
- If you are a pro se litigant, be sure you have learned as much as possible about procedure and expectations before stepping into the court.
- Remember, don't overreact.