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Judge Requests New Post : Family Law Court's Steele Blames Workload, Not Critics

June 08, 1989|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

A judge who has been accused of sexual discrimination in his custody decisions has asked for reassignment but says his request has nothing to do with the allegations.

Ventura Superior Court Judge Alan L. Steele said the Family Law Court post he has held for 16 months has drained him emotionally.

"It's an exhausting killer of an assignment," said Steele, 59. "I'm tired, and it's time for me to move on to something else."

A small, vocal group has criticized Steele and Superior Court Judge Melinda A. Johnson in letters to area newspapers. The group contends that they favor men in custody and property decisions.

Mary Baird, a member of NOW Court Watch, the group critical of the judges, said she was satisfied with Steele's request.

'Better Decisions'

"It makes us hopeful that another judge will be put in that position who will make better decisions for women," said Baird, whose National Organization for Women task force was created by NOW's local chapter last summer.

Baird said the chapter had received complaints from "many women . . . that his judgments are biased against women."

The group complained at a state judicial committee hearing last February that "an old boy's network" was discriminating against women in Ventura County Family Law Court.

Steele said he asked for a transfer because of an excessive caseload--about 4,000 cases annually and 75 court orders each day--and the tragic nature of the disputes before him.

He said he knew it was time to ask for another assignment several weeks ago when in the middle of a case, he started to cry.

"The tears come up in your eyes, your voice chokes, and I said, 'Whoopee, it's time to go.' One has to be somewhat dispassionate. You know you're not when you let the pain of these people get that close to you."

He said his critics had nothing to do with his request.

"The problem doesn't get any easier or harder because you have criticism," he said. "It's so hard that everything else is a minor distraction."

But Marge Wilson, an attorney who is president of the Ventura County Family Bar Assn., said the NOW Court Watch activities were "upsetting to both Judge Johnson and Judge Steele because the criticism was unfair and unfounded."

Wilson described Steele, who was appointed to the bench in 1983 by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., as a just but candid man in settling custody cases.

"I've heard him talk to parents like a Dutch uncle," she said. "He'll say, 'Do you know what you're doing to this child--because I do.' He'll chastise them, and I respect him for that."

Few Last on Bench

Because of the conflicts that come before them, few judges last more than a couple years on the Family Law Court bench.

"Every day is a crisis," Steele said.

Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren, who served on the Family Law Court in 1987 and 1988, said: "It's an unbelievable atmosphere, and you can't understand it if you haven't been there. In a family trial, people are at their most vulnerable and most angry. That's a formula just laden with the potential for stress on the judge."

In Family Law Court, Perren said, children can be asked to testify against a parent, estranged spouses first see their "replacements" and restraining orders can be issued against men who "show up with their mouths agape, saying, 'This is the woman I made love to last night.' "

Steele also said the county's new system of handling cases, in which the same family law judge handles all phases of a dispute, has been victimized by understaffing in the courts.

Several Phases

In the past, judges were assigned to separate phases of a case as they became available, which meant that several judges could be involved in a single case.

The "vertical" system, which was started in October, is designed to speed decisions by eliminating the amount of time judges had to spend in familiarizing themselves with overlapping cases.

Steele said that because of the new system, he and Johnson have been so overloaded that neither could take the month's annual vacation they receive, much less the additional time they had requested to offset stress caused by the new system.

Steele said he has taken only three weeks vacation in his 16 months on the job.

Judge Kenneth R. Yegan, who has been hearing a lawsuit brought by residents of the Oxnard Dunes neighborhood where toxic substances have been found in the soil, will replace Steele on July 5, Superior Court Presiding Judge Joe D. Hadden said Wednesday. Hadden said he still had not decided which judge will replace Yegan on the complex legal dispute.

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