ON BEING A REFEREE
by Steven L. Berman
On July 2, 2001, I was sworn in as an "as-needed" Court Referee at the Edelman Children's Court by then Juvenile Court Presiding Judge and now, California Judge's Association president, Terry Friedman.
I was almost late because I didn't know where Edelman was. Actually I didn't know where Monterey Park was since I never had a reason to be there. To tell the truth, I didn't really know what a referee was either. After thirty years of criminal and civil litigation, I applied for commissioner and referee positions at the same time because they sounded interesting. When Judge Friedman swore in the new referees, he told us, "We know you have the knowledge and the experience to do this job, just do the right thing."
Okay, now all I had to do was figure out what was this referee position all about.
The day after swearing in we began two weeks of intensive training. First, we were given five three-inch binders. They included laws, protocols, scripts, code sections, acronyms (a foreign language all their own), and maps to dependency, delinquency and the informal juvenile and traffic court. I took the binders and began to memorize the materials. We began classroom instruction from some of the best and brightest bench officers in the department. After the classes, it was time for on the job training. I watched in fear and awe as the bench officers I was assigned to observe performed their assignments with efficiency, patience, and experience. Luckily, I was assigned to people who were highly skilled in what they did. From delinquency, to dependency, to traffic, I watched and learned how important the work of a referee (and all juvenile court bench officers) is, that of protecting children.
First, let me describe what a referee is not. A referee is not an arbitrator. We do not make sports decisions while wearing a stripped shirt and carrying a whistle (I'm compelled to make this comment based on the number of times I've heard that line.) We do not make reports to the "real" judge in discovery cases.
According to the Superior Court web site, "A Superior Court Referee is a lawyer who is appointed by the Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Court (currently Judge Michael Nash) to hear such cases as may be assigned to him or her. While hearing such cases the referee has the same powers as a juvenile court judge (Section 248 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code.)" A Referee must be an attorney for at least ten years (same as a judge and commissioner). We are equal to, not below Court Commissioners. (What Commissioners do is a story for another article). Referees are paid the same salary and have virtually the same benefits as a commissioner, except they get three years CCW. Permits. Oh, and we don't have to do E.P.O. duty. Ask any commissioner what that is and if they enjoy it. The selection procedure is similar and the number of applicants can be almost the same. The Juvenile Court Presiding Judge and his associates select referees. The Presiding Judge of the entire Superior Court and his committee selects commissioners.
If however, we cannot return the children to the parents because they cannot or will not change, sometimes we must free the children for adoption.
Referees are judicial officers. We have our own courtrooms, clerks, bailiffs, court reporters and other staff. In dependency court, we detain children from their parents, put them in foster homes, and hopefully, reunite the family. Our job is to heal and reunify the family, if it can be done. We assign the parents to programs designed to effectuate this goal. They participate in counseling, sex abuse counseling, substance abuse programs, domestic violence and anger management, and other similar services. In fact, state and federal law mandates the Department of Children and Family services to provide" reasonable efforts to reunify" the families. Thankfully, many parents can turn their lives around and reunify with their children. In fact, it is when I return the children to a parent who changed their lives after years of drug abuse or domestic violence, that the emotions well up in me. This is our goal and it is then, that that the dependency system is most successful.
In delinquency court (criminal court for those under eighteen), the goal is to rehabilitate the young offender while protecting society. We can place the youths on probation with services designed to change them and assist them in becoming law abiding citizens. Sometimes we have to send them to juvenile hall, camp, or to the California Youth Authority (state prison for young offenders).
While a referee needs a stipulation to act as a judge in delinquency cases, like a commissioner in criminal court or family law, a referee does not need such a stipulation to hear dependency cases; except in presiding over adoptions. We handle those too. They are one of the happiest aspects of this position. We handle cases of domestic violence, substance abuse, child molestation and incest, and we preside over cases involving the children of people who murder and torture them and their siblings. While we can't send the offending parent to jail, we can remove their children from them and ensure that they never have the opportunity to do that again. We sign emergency protective orders and issue permanent restraining orders. We order children and parents into drug and alcohol testing and rehab when necessary. Threats from irate parents are not uncommon. Recently, I signed an emergency medical authorization allowing surgeons to remove a ten-year-old boy's eye (which was damaged in a shooting) because the mother was too intoxicated to sign. We authorize psychiatrists to treat children with psychotropic medications. Referees have given authorization to terminate life support on children and infants when the circumstances warranted it. We act as the parent for those children whose biological parents are unable or unavailable.
Referees can sit in Juvenile Dependency, Delinquency, or the Informal Juvenile and Traffic Court. As an as-needed referee (similar to a substitute teacher the "as-needed" fills in for the regular bench officer in the courtroom when they are out sick or on away on court business.) I sat in all three courts at various times. Some of those assignments lasted up to four months or more.
Cases in Juvenile Court involve murder, torture, incest, rape, kidnap, gangs, truants, substance abuse, petty thefts, domestic violence, and other misdemeanors and traffic cases. In the informal court, we try to help the children by developing programs and systems before they get into more serious trouble and end up in delinquency courts with much more serious consequences.
In the courthouse where I sit, there are approximately seven judges, six commissioners, and six referees. One day, I addressed the former supervising judge of the dependency court, as "your honor."
"Please call me Emily," she said. "We all do the same work in this building and we are equals." That type of attitude promotes camaraderie among all the bench officers. We are truly peers. This equality is not common in all courthouses throughout the state where Referees and Commissioners are treated as "Subordinate "Judicial officers. By definition we are SJOs, but here we are not treated as such.
The Edelman Children's Court is in Monterey Park (where the 710, 10, 5, and 60 freeways converge and jam up at seven A.M. and four P.M. every day). The court hears all of the dependency cases in Los Angeles County, with the exception of one courtroom in Lancaster. The courthouse is a beautiful building dedicated to helping children and their families. The design of the building and the set up of the individual courtrooms is unique in the entire world. We have had visitors from Russia, China, Scandinavia, etc. The courthouse is the only one I have seen where the bench officers have a view of the parking structure from their chambers and the public has expansive waiting rooms with a panoramic view of the city, the golf course across the way, and Cal State L.A. Disney movies and cartoons play all day. The courtrooms themselves are designed to reflect a home like feeling and they are decorated with movie posters, teddy bears, and children's books.
The child friendly atmosphere and beautiful architecture is the perfect setting for protecting children. However, despite the idyllic setting, this is serious business. I practiced criminal law for thirty years before being appointed. During all that time, I had never seen such cruel inhumanity to defenseless children by parents and others that come before us. Every one of us has horror stories to tell and sometimes it is difficult to sleep at night. This is not a job for everyone.
I hope I have clarified what a Court Referee is and does. Being in juvenile court as a referee, allows me to make a real impact on people's lives every day. Especially the lives of our future.
Hon. Steven L. Berman
[Editor's note: Steve is now a sitting Court Commissioner, asigned to the Torrance court, hearing adult criminal cases. He has endorsed Randy Hammock for Superior Court Judge, Office No. 28.]
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Journalę