Sporting one of his colorful “Save the Children” ties, Judge Robert J. Castellani addressed a record turnout at the DeKalb Bar Family Law Section Breakfast on October 1, the first breakfast in the new permanent location at the Old Courthouse on the Square in Decatur.
Judge Castellani began by recounting his earlier years as a young lawyer who did a substantial amount of domestic relations work because many lawyers “dumped” their family law cases. He noted that family law is an area where the Bar can do the most good by helping people in difficult situations. To him, domestic relations lawyers are the “unsung heroes of the Bar.” He also noted, however, that the adversarial “trial lawyer’s mentality” frequently does not work in this arena, seeing how destructive and ineffective it can be to litigants and their children.
Judge Castellani accordingly advocates and encourages collaboration, believing that the team approach is the most effective means of dealing with the sensitive issues involved in domestic relations cases. While recognizing that collaboration is not possible in all cases, he encourages parents to work together as it is not only in their own best interest, but the children’s, as well. He also reminded attorneys that their main job is to solve problems, not to exacerbate them.
When two good parents come into his courtroom, he said, he usually finds that joint custody is in the best interests of the children. He explained that one of the primary factors he considers is which parent is the better psychological parent who can best provide support and nurturing for the children. Another important factor he considers is which parent is most likely to facilitate the children’s relationship with the other parent.
Judge Castellani noted that while his secretary/calendar clerk, Susan Watts, is a big fan of lawyers – especially domestic relations lawyers – she complains about the increasing use of faxes. The judge reminded us that last-minute conflict letters faxed to his office are not in compliance with the Rules and that long documents or pleadings faxed to his office are not welcome.
Ms. Watts also asked Judge Castellani to relay that she does not give out hearing dates by telephone. Instead, all requests for hearing dates should be done in writing by sending her a blank Rule Nisi order. She also wanted to remind lawyers to put their addresses and phone numbers in pleadings, as required by the Rules. The judge also asked that attorneys not file an extra copy of pleadings with the clerk expecting it to be promptly delivered to his chambers. Instead, attorneys should send a courtesy copy directly to his office.
In response to questions from attendees, Judge Castellani said that he expects parties to confer before coming to court. He frequently brings parties and their attorneys into his chambers for a pre-trial conference to try to narrow the issues. He also noted that he does not favor using email for anything other than non-substantive matters such as scheduling. He allows phone conferences but prefers parties and attorneys to be present for pretrial conferences so they can try to settle the issues before trying them.
When asked if he requires a Domestic Relations Financial Affidavit to be filed in uncontested cases with no children, Judge Castellani said that although he does not think it is necessary in all cases, he requires it because the Rules require it. Judge Castellani responded to another question saying that he does not like to take final decrees on motions for judgment on the pleadings. He explained that divorce is an important event in a person’s life and he believes that there should be some solemnization of the event. Finally, he noted that he usually takes the opportunity to talk with the parties about the divorce and he praises those who collaborate and settle.