Four lawyers stand in a row before the Honorable Richard Montes. The two at opposite ends used to be married to each other and now are at odds about transportation of their child from school.
Together once when they became a family, their differences and attorneys now stand between them. A family divided.
The father claims that work sometimes prohibits him from picking up their son from school and taking him to after-school care and other appointments. He would like the court's permission to hire a transportation service to fill in when he is not available.
His ex-wife is opposed. If he can't pick the child up, she would rather do it herself, but she needs advance notification to arrange her schedule, and there will be times when she, too, is not available.
Such an arrangement would require communication between the two, and that appears unlikely.
"I don't have her phone number," the father says.
"Part of the problem here," Montes begins. He then pauses and glances at the bailiff seated against the wall. "What's the name of the movie?"
The bailiff's response is a smile expressing uncertainty.
" 'Cool Hand Luke,' " Montes says. "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
He asks the four of them to go somewhere, sit down. Communicate.
"I'm suggesting that reasonable people who have the best interests of the child can sit down and speak to each other. This shouldn't be causing a problem between two mature adults."
But, then, there is the more complex matter of child support.
Since 1976, when Montes was appointed to the bench, he has been hearing such stories. He used to be presiding judge over Los Angeles County Juvenile Court. He also has handled adult criminal and civil cases, and now he is a family law judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
From the bench in juvenile court, he saw children whose lives seemed a series of tragedies. Now he sees families ripping apart, keeping score. Five days a week, they come before him, families that, in their unraveling, seek custody or money or rights as a measure of justice.
"I have a myopic view. I haven't done longitudinal studies of how families are doing in society or whether there's a change in the views of society as a whole toward family," he says. "But I feel that the core unit of society is the family unit."
It's difficult, he says, to see families, one after the other, split apart.
He read a book once about an indigenous Mexican tribe.
"They had no word for punishment," he says, and there was a communal attitude toward parenting, much the way it was in the Boyle Heights neighborhood where he grew up.
He remembers walking in the rain one day. Neighbors saw him getting soaked, so they opened their windows and told him to go home.
He has left family law twice because he needed to get away from it. The first time, he left to go to criminal court, then to civil court. Now there are moments when he feels drenched once again. After 24 years on the bench, it's time to go home, he says, and so when he leaves Superior Court on Wednesday, a day after his 60th birthday, pension in place, it will be for good.
A Heritage of Perseverance
Montes arrived in Los Angeles at age 3 on a Greyhound bus from El Paso. His father was a casket trimmer, lining the inside of coffins. His mother worked in a pickle factory and eventually as a salesclerk in a department store.
Montes didn't learn until later in life that his father and three aunts were orphaned in Texas. They were shuffled between relatives in Mexico until the oldest sibling turned 18 and returned with the other three children to Texas.
Even though Montes' father had little education, he demanded that his children study hard. They were not allowed to play until their homework was finished. His wrath and love shaped many of his children's decisions.
In time, his waning vim and constant faith allowed a softer side to emerge. He would often quote 19th century Mexican statesman Benito Juarez: "El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz" (in English, "The respect for the rights of others is peace").
After graduating from Cathedral High School in Los Angeles in 1958, Montes attended Loyola University, then withdrew to enter the monastery to become a monk. He left there to enter the seminary to become a priest. He left the seminary to become a lawyer with aspirations of becoming a judge.
"I didn't know any lawyers," he says. "I had never even met a lawyer, and I'd never been in court, but I felt that it was a way to help people."
There was another reason for leaving the seminary. His family was such an integral part of his life growing up, he found it difficult to foresee a future without one of his own.
"As a minister or priest, you find yourself in a very artificial social setting. You're confined to a rectory, and you don't have interaction with family."