Most people’s knowledge of small claims court is limited to the People’s Court and Judge Judy. And unfortunately, this leaves people with a very different perception of what to expect in small claims court. We can’t tell you who your judge will be (as it even varies within counties), but we can give you some information about what kind of a judge you will likely see.
California Small Claims Court Judge – Not likely a judge
Your small claims court judge will likely not be a judge. The current caseload in the California judicial system is so backlogged, it is easier for the court to have the judges handle matter that are REQUIRED to be handled by a judge. You see, the California judicial system uses all types of persons in order to administer justice. It uses retired judges to come in and fill in for a judge who is on vacation (or sick leave) as well as fill a vacant courtroom when a judge retires. The system also uses Commissioners. Commissioners have much of the same training and experience as a judge except they are appointed rather than elected (Note: judges can be appointed, but they must face an election after a certain number of years). Commissioners are used by the judicial system to hear motions, temporary restraining orders, and other case management issues.
As the judicial system is so backlogged that commissioners are used in civil cases regardless of dollar amount, small claims courtrooms are often handled by attorneys acting as a Judge Pro Tem (fancy word meaning “for the time being.”)
Will I really have an attorney acting as my small claims court judge?
Yes. The attorney will be acting as what is called a judge pro tem. As the attorney is not a judge, both sides must stipulate to having the attorney hear the case. If one side does not stipulate, the case may be required to be heard in a different courtroom, perhaps even on a different day altogether.
What training does a judge pro tem have?
A small claims court judge pro tem will have undergone training to make him or her eligible for the position of judge pro tem. They will have sat through at least two separate courses (one dealing with judicial ethics and the other detailing the law necessary for a small claims court judge).
They are required to complete this training every three years.
Should I stipulate to the judge pro tem?
The decision is up to you. With a judge pro tem, you will likely get someone who has handled these types of cases before and is more familiar with how small claims court cases are handled. With a judge, all bets are off as to when this judge last received training for this area. For example, the judge you end up with may be from family law and have no experience trying civil cases (small claims court case is a type of civil case-it does not involve depriving someone of life or liberty…only property).
Our recommendation-go down to the courtroom ahead of time and see what the judge is like (note some courts will rotate who through their pro tem judges so call the clerk’s office to find out who your judge will be and find out if they will be sitting as a small claims court judge prior to the date of your hearing. We recommend doing this anyways as you will learn a lot by watching how the judge handles other cases. You will learn how the judge rules and will be able to determine what the judge likes. And what it often comes down to is a well thought out argument with no emotional words or verbal attacks against the other party. The judge isn’t here to referee a verbal sparring match between you. The one thing we do like about the small claims court shows on television is that the judges enforce order and do not allow the parties to engage in verbal spats (although they are often way more aggressive than real small claims court judges).
What has you experience been with judges or judges pro tem? Let us know in the comments below.