by Attorney and Certified Family Law Specialist Raelynn Stattner
PCTJ stands for Privately Compensated Temporary Judge. The PCTJ process is an alternative to proceeding in traditional court in which the PCTJ essentially steps into the role of a Superior Court judicial officer to make binding decisions related to family law cases.
A PCTJ is a former judicial officer who has retired from the bench and is working in private practice. Both parties must agree to participate in the process as an alternative to traditional court, however, with the proper orders and paperwork, a PCTJ can act in the same capacity as a county judicial officer.
The downside to this process is that the PCTJ is just that – compensated. This means that one or both parties pay the PCTJ’s fees. In a traditional family law proceeding, the Court has various fees for filing a case and other specific paperwork, but the parties do not pay for the judge’s time as they would with a PCTJ. However, there are several unique benefits that make this process an attractive option for many cases.
Every family law matter is assigned a judicial officer when the case is filed. The assignments are random based on each judge’s caseload. There are procedures for challenging a judicial appointment under specific circumstances, however, the parties do not get to select their judge. Electing to appoint a PCTJ means that parties can do just that. Again, the parties must reach an agreement as to which PCTJ to appoint, but this process still gives litigants some control over the decision-maker in their case.
This can be important for many reasons. For example, judicial assignments in San Diego County are rotated every three years, which means your case could be assigned to a judge with minimal family law experience. Appointing a PCTJ means that parties have the power to select a judge with extensive family law experience and knowledge.
Family law judges often make decisions regarding the most important parts of parties’ lives: their finances, their possessions and, most importantly, their children. Securing an experienced family law judicial officer can be critical to obtaining the best orders possible which dictate litigants’ day-to-day lives in addition to having long-term repercussions.
Also, dissolution proceedings are open to the public and all case files are a matter of public record. This means that anyone can attend your hearing, and anyone can review and even copy your case file. Family law matters involve the most sensitive and personal details regarding your life, children and finances. And it is all open to the public. The PCTJ process takes place behind closed doors. Further, the pleadings that are submitted to a PCTJ remain private and out of the public record.
As noted above, there is paperwork that is required to be filed with the Superior Court to formally appoint a PCTJ and authorize him or her to have the authority to make binding orders. Parties also file any orders and/or judgments rendered by the PCTJ. The difference is that only the end result is public, not the often dirty or private details that surface in family law litigation.
Because the PCTJ works in the private sector, they often have greater availability and workflow than the Superior Court. Especially in the wake of COVID, the Superior Court staff has been reduced. This can lead to administrative errors and delays that impact family law cases on a daily basis. The Superior Court is also limited in resources for staff and judicial departments. This can lead to long delays in getting hearings and motions before the judge.
The Superior Court judges work hard to minimize these issues, but their hands are often tied by the system. Meanwhile, these delays and impacted calendars often mean that many families are going months and months without orders for financial support or child custody. Such delays can be financially damaging and lead to disputes related to child sharing as well as the division of assets and debts. A PCTJ often has more time and resources available to move cases forward more quickly.
As the name suggests, a PCTJ is temporary. When a matter or an entire case is concluded, the PCTJ will prepare and file a Notice of Case Completion with the Superior Court. Either party may also elect to withdraw the appointment of a PCTJ by filing a motion with the Superior Court to do so. In short, parties are not stuck in the PCTJ process. Proceeding in the traditional Superior Court is always an option available to litigants.
Given the complexities of family law and sensitive nature of the matters involved in nearly every family law case, a PCTJ is an effective option to resolve disputes and obtain optimal results.