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The Purpose of a Private Judge in a California Divorce


The breakdown of a marriage is a personal situation but can become very public when the case is heard in Superior Court. Divorcing spouses who cannot agree on their divorce terms in California have another option when traditional negotiation fails – a private judge.

Private judges perform the same functions as trial judges in a divorce proceeding. The advantages of a private judge include expediency and better privacy. These benefits are probably among the reasons Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife, Nicole Shanahan, are using a temporary judge in their divorce. Shanahan cited irreconcilable differences when she filed in Santa Clara Superior Court in January 2022.

Private Judges Have Experience in Family Law

Also called “judge pro tempore,” temporary judge, or referee, a private judge is typically a retired judge or attorney with considerable experience in California family law. They take an oath of office and commit to following the Judicial Code of Ethics and Rules of the Court.

Contested divorces run the gamut from disagreement on every issue to a dispute over only one aspect. Private judges have the flexibility to decide any matters needed to bring the process to a conclusion.

Private judges can render decisions on the following:

The decisions of a private judge are binding.

Advantages of Using a Private Judge

Divorce proceedings in Superior Court can drag on for months. Court dockets get slammed, and cases are scheduled at the convenience of the court. A quicker, more streamlined process is a significant advantage in cases using a private judge. Private judges limit the number of cases they take. Their schedule gives them the flexibility to schedule sessions according to the parties’ availability. Judges offer virtual hearings. The parties to the divorce can attend from their own home.

Increased privacy is also a benefit of a judge pro tempore. Cases in Superior Court are typically in open session. Anyone in the courtroom will hear specific details some couples would rather keep away from the public eye. Information and testimony exchanged in private sessions are managed discreetly.

High-profile and high-net-worth couples are usually concerned about how information about their marriage and divorce is readily accessible by the public. The details behind the custody decisions, property division, and other contested issues stay private when a private judge oversees the case. Only the final settlement is submitted to the state court.

Speed and confidentiality are not the only advantages of a private judge:

  • The two sides select the private judge they wish to use (cannot pick the judge in Superior Court).
  • Private judges’ smaller caseloads allow them more time to consider the evidence and testimony before rendering a decision.
  • Sessions before a private judge tend to be less stressful and adversarial than conventional court.

Disadvantages of Private Court for Divorce

A significant downside to hiring a private judge is the cost. They often charge about the same or higher hourly rate as divorce attorneys. The additional cost can make using a private judge unrealistic for some couples. Divorce cases can be hurt by the veil of privacy and may benefit from being in the public sphere. Both spouses must also agree on the judge that will oversee the case.

Is a Private Judge Right for Your Divorce?

If your marriage is not salvageable, a private judge to preside over your divorce is an option to consider. At Gille Kaye Law Group, PC, we will listen to your concerns and evaluate the specifics of your case before recommending whether a traditional or private court is the best venue.

Review the pros and cons of a private judge in a confidential consultation. Complete our online form or call (626) 340-0955 to schedule.

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