JUDICIAL REVIEW

No matter whose court you land in, it’s wise to know who’s wielding the gavel.

THE WORK OF A DIVORCE JUDGE DOES NOT encourage longevity. Of the seven Dallas family court judges rated by D in 1981, only two remain Happily, the vacancies have been filled by bright, capable jurists, each with different philosophies and foibles that shape their judgment. Here is what a group of Dallas divorce lawyers had to say about the judges who could make some of the most important decisions of your life. Remember, forewarned is forearmed.

Bob O’Donnell: The Legal Scholar Lawyers feel particularly vulnerable when they walk into Bob O’Donnell’s courtroom. “Obscure legal precedent is his hobby,” says one. “Suddenly he’s ruling against you, citing some long-forgotten case.”

But it’s his love of the law that makes O’Donnell such a valuable jurist. Creative and innovative, he’s willing to listen to new legal theories that test his scholarship. And some say he may be on the verge of revolutionizing the entire child-support system in Texas: he has a computer programmed to kick out the name of anyone thirty days behind in child-support payments. But he remains unenthusiastic about joint custody and mediation. “They try to enhance the quality of divorce,” says O’Donnell, “and how can you enhance the quality of a disaster?”

Dee Miller: The Nouvelle Judge if you’re an embittered housewife who’s looking to retire on a divorce settlement, you may not get much sympathy from Dee Miller. A self-made woman, she’s hard on those who won’t fend for themselves.

Lawyers perceive her as pro-fathers, but she’d rather be known as a joint-custody judge-and the driving force behind mandatory mediation in Texas. Originally a juvenile prosecutor, in 1981 she asked Governor Bill Clements to appoint her to a juvenile bench. When the governor made her a family judge instead, some lawyers claimed she was unqualified. Today, many of those same lawyers claim Dee Miller is the best mistake Clements ever made. She minimizes conflict by hurrying trials, sometimes moving faster than lawyers get paid.

Don Koons: The Pragmatist For twelve years, Don Koons’s relaxed, easygoing style has reduced the stress of divorce court for attorneys and litigants alike. He’s known as Easy Don, Mr. Fifty-Fifty, because he believes in dividing marital assets as evenly as possible. You’ll get no advantage in his court by harping on adultery or cruelty, the traditional grounds for divorce. “It takes two people to get divorced,” says Koons. “How can you tell who is 43 percent responsible for the breakup?”

Frances Harris: The Moralist Let’s say you didn’t fool around during your entire marriage. But now you’re separated, pending divorce. You meet someone at a party. They find you incredibly attractive. Do you dare?

Not if you’re in Judge Frances Harris’s court. Even if the marriage is cold, dead ashes, she’ll blame you for it and punish you by taking away more of your property. But despite her moralistic bent, she’s considered very fair, equally as hard on sinners of both sexes. Still, Harris remains something of an enigma to lawyers. She’s strong on the adversary system, but she’s a children’s judge, solidly behind joint custody and mediation.

Carolyn Wright: The Politico Some say Carolyn Wright is too busy politicking and doesn’t work hard enough as a judge. Others find her committed to fashioning practical remedies laced with doses of reality. “No one’s child support should be less than their car payment,” she once said.

Most believe she’s just in it for the short term-they’ve probably heard the rumors that Wright wants to run for Congress someday.

Theo Bedard: Mommy’s Dearest? When you watch Judge Theo Bedard on the bench, you get the feeling she’s not quite comfortable up there. She seems more the Southern lady, somewhat shy and genteel.

Until recently, Bedard meted out justice slowly, indecisively, unwilling to offend anyone-and offending everyone in the process. Lawyers also felt that she was heavily biased in favor of mothers. But in the last several years, people have noticed a change in Theo Bedard. They say she has grown into the job, making decisions and moving cases.

Sue Lykes: The Rookie The jury is still out on Judge Lykes. Newly appointed, she seems promising, an earth mother sensitive to the needs of children and acutely aware of the psychology of divorce. But lawyers worry she is not tough enough, that she can’t handle the hard calls. Perhaps she was answering her critics when she held a woman in contempt for denying her ex-husband his visitation rights. It was the woman’s first offense. Most judges would have let her off with a stern warning, or probation. Lykes put her in the county jail.

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