Judicial Officer of the Year
Recent Judicial Officers of the Year
Judge Gary Gibson of Shasta County receives the 2014 Family Law Judicial Officer of the Year Award
At the State Bar Meeting in September, the Family Law Section hosted a reception attended by attorneys and judges from throughout the statewide family law community. The gathering was put together in order to honor the Family Law Judicial Officer of the Year. The 2014 award marked the 30th occasion in which this honor has been presented. It was a distinct pleasure to present the award to the Honorable Gary Gibson of Shasta County.
The written criteria for this award require outstanding service to the practice of Family Law as exemplified by career achievements or a singular act or performance. Implicitly, those voting on this award look for characteristics such as fairness, patience, superior work ethic and common sense. Every great jurist shares these traits. Judge Gibson exemplifies all these characteristics, and so many more, as he continues to distinguish himself as a top Family Law bench officer in his county and across the state.
In accepting the award, Judge Gibson displayed his characteristic humility and wit. He acknowledged the team effort that makes the success of his courtroom possible, opining that the award is as much a recognition of all the people with whom he works.
Outgoing FLEXCOM chair Andrew Cain praised Judge Gibson’s fairness, commitment to justice and work ethic during the award presentation. Often, the first to arrive and last to leave the courthouse, Judge Gibson sets himself apart by going out of his way to insure everyone walks out of his with the knowledge their case was thoughtfully considered. “He takes the time to make sure everyone has their voices heard and learns why he reached a certain result,” Cain said. “Even if they walk out of his courtroom frustrated in his decision, they know the reasons why he ruled that way.”
Judge Gibson joined the bench in 2006 as Shasta County’s child support Commissioner. Following a six-year stint on that calendar he was appointed to the bench by Governor Brown in 2012, at which point he assumed responsibilities as supervising judge of Family Law. He is currently the Assistant Presiding Judge of the local Superior Court, and expects to take over as Presiding Judge in 2016.
The Family Law Section salutes Judge Gibson for his contributions to the judiciary, family law and, most importantly, the ability of families to access the justice system. Congratulations to Judge Gibson on the 2014 Family Law Judicial Officer of the Year Award.
2013 Judicial Office of the Year -- The Honorable James M. Mize, Sacramento County Superior Court
Each year, the Family Law Section Executive Committee presents the Judicial Officer of the Year Award to an outstanding Family Law Judicial Officer. This award is intended to recognize excellence on the Family Law bench. It may focus upon outstanding service to the practice of Family Law, or career achievements, or a singular act or performance of the nominee, which distinguishes the honoree.
This year, the award was bestowed upon James M. Mize of Sacramento County Superior Court. The award was presented at the Family Law Section reception at the State Bar Convention on October 11, 2013.
Judge James M. Mize was appointed to the Sacramento County Superior court bench in 2000. Prior to being appointed to the bench he was a family law attorney. He practiced family law in excess of twenty-five. He was a Certified Family Law Specialist and served on the Board of Association of Certified Family Law Specialists. He founded the Sacramento Chapter of ACFLS in 1995, which continues to exist to this date, providing monthly continuing education programs to the local family law bar. As an attorney, he was president or chair of most of the local attorney organizations, including the County Bar Association.
As an attorney, not only did he donate his time and leadership skills to many organizations, but he also engaged in teaching, speaking and writing about topics related to family law. He authored articles for the ACFLS periodical. He was an author and speaker for CEB. He contributed articles to the local bar periodicals. I mention these accomplishments because his passion for teaching and educating has continued into his career as a Judicial Officer.
Judge Mize is passionate about education. He has continued to speak and teach regarding various family law topics well into his judicial career. He has spent many hours and years teaching family law to other Judges. He is also a frequent speaker to attorney groups.
Judge Mize has spent most of his judicial career assigned to family law. He did leave the family court for several years when he served as assistant presiding judge, then presiding judge of the entire Sacramento County Superior Court. He returned to family law a few years ago and is the current Supervising Family Law and Probate Judge.
Because Judge Mize was a family law attorney, he is keenly aware of the challenges of being a family law practitioner and representing family law litigants. He demands civility in his courtroom and counsels both attorneys and litigants to foster civility outside his courtroom. Judge Mize demonstrates respect for all litigants in his courtroom. He strives to treat all litigants in an even handed manner. He easily establishes rapport with many different types of litigants; whether he or she is a titan of industry, stay at home parent, or manual laborer. He finds a way to connect with each litigant. He routinely allows litigants to exhaust all arguments, so that they do not leave his courtroom feeling they were not heard or they were cut short by the Judge. He is an expert at communication and skillfully explains the bases for his decisions. Local practitioners are grateful that Judge Mize is skilled at the art of verbal communication, because his handwriting is atrocious and usually totally indecipherable!
Although Judge Mize prefers parties resolve their disputes outside of the courtroom, he will render decisions that are well thought out and based in the law. He is not punitive, nor does he have any perceived biases. He enjoys the intellectual legal puzzles that occasionally come before him, but just as happily dispatches the routine family law issues that are more commonly in front of him.
Not only is Judge Mize an excellent trial judge, but he is also gifted at settling difficult high conflict cases. I think, this is due in part to his past experience as a family law attorney, which affords him unique insights into a family law case, but it is also largely due to his communication skills and general ability to talk to both sides of a matter in not only a practical manner, but with persuasiveness and authority. His communication style allows litigants and/or attorneys to put aside whatever had been the stumbling block to settlement before reaching him and focus in on the issues at hand.
Judge Mize believes strongly in giving back to the community, both the legal community and the community at large. He is a founding member of more than one volunteer organization that provides services to individuals that are in need, whether it is a meal or legal services. Among the organizations he has founded, one is called “Sharing God’s Bounty;” he helped find this organization approximately thirty years ago. This charity provides, among other things, meals for those in need - serving several hundred meals per week. This ministry has served over 1 million meals since its inception.
This year, Judge Mize started a new program in the Sacramento family law court, called “One Day Divorce.” This program, as designed and envisioned by Judge Mize, involves guiding self-represented individuals through the court system in one day to a full Judgment of Dissolution. The facilitator pre-screens appropriate cases for this program and twice a month, several volunteer attorneys, paralegals, and law students get together at the courthouse and assist these litigants in finalizing their dissolution. Once the paperwork is in order, the parties appear before Judge Mize that same day and obtain their Judgment of Dissolution. Not only does this program assist in a practical manner by clearing out cases that are bogging down the system for all of us, but in the current climate of budget slashes on the courts, it has also generated much needed positive press for the family law court.
In conclusion, Judge Mize is not only an exemplary Judicial Officer, but more importantly, an exemplary human being.
Commissioner Sue Alexander, Alameda County Superior Court, Honored as 2012 Judicial Officer of the Year
Commissioner Sue Alexander from Alameda County was presented with the 2012 Judicial Officer of the Year Award at the Family Law reception held on October 12th, 2012 at the 85th Annual Meeting for the State Bar of California (pictured L-R former FLEXCOM Chair Chris Melcher, FLJOY recipient Sue Alexander and FLEXCOM Advisor Sherry Peterson). For thirty years, Commissioner Alexander has redefined the term stepping up to the plate by consistently and substantially contributing her time and expertise to the improvement of family law on a variety of levels.
Before being appointed to the bench in 1997, Commissioner Alexander was in private practice for fourteen years attaining the level of Certified Family Law Specialist as well as Certified Specialist for Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law. Commissioner Alexander has been an active member in the Judicial Council, Family/Juvenile Advisory Committee, Elkins Task Force, Elkins Recommendation Committee, Family Law Curriculum Committee (CJER), AOC Representative to the Department of Child Support Services Judicial Stakeholders Committee and Computer Development, CFCC Resource Guidelines Drafting Team, CFCC Judicial Officer Subject Matter Expert to CCMS, CFCC 1058/1059 Budget Allocation Committee, CJA Family Law Committee, CJA Executive Board, CJA Foundation Board, CCCA Board, Joint Advisory Task Force on the Legal Representation Pilot Project, and various committees for Alameda County Superior Court including but not limited to Community Focused Court Planning (Strategic Planning), Family/Juvenile Ad Hoc Committee, as well as the 1058 Implementation Committee Chair.
In her spare time, Commissioner Alexander teaches numerous programs for CJER, CJSP, CFCC, as well as local court and college courses in the area of family law, probate, and ethics.
2011 Judicial Officer of the Year Award Recipient Mark Juhas
Judge Mark A. Juhas will be honored as the Judicial Officer of the Year at the at the Family Law Section's reception at the State Bar Annual Meeting. Judge Juhas currently sits in a family law assignment in Department 67 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court in the Central Division in downtown Los Angeles. He has been on the Family Law Bench in excess of eight years. Judge Juhas has been dedicated to the improvement of family law throughout the State of California for several years. He currently chairs the Access and Fairness Committee and is a member of the Elkins Family Law Implementation Task Force after serving on the Elkins Family Law Task Force for the Judicial Council from 2008 to 2010. He is also on the Task Force on Self Represented Litigants to the Judicial Council. He participates regularly in continuing education programs in order to assist the family law bar in their continuing goal to remain on the cutting edge of the ever evolving complexities of family law. These are only a few examples of his dedication to improving the practice of Family Law throughout the State.
Cathy Mills Recognized With the 2011 Court Staff Award
FLEXCOM had the pleasure of presenting the inaugural Court Staff Award to Cathy Mills, the Court Services Manager for Alameda County. Cathy received recognition for her service to the family courts in a ceremony attended by the Honorable Jon Rolefson, Presiding Judge of the Alameda Superior Court and the Honorable Stephen Pulido, Presiding Judge of the Family Division. The award was presented to Cathy by 2010-11 FLEXCOM Chair Sherry Peterson and current Vice-Chair Mark Ressa. The following is the text of remarks made on Cathy’s behalf during the presentation:
For a variety of reasons, everyone in this room's job is harder than it ever has been before. Our court system has been given a tremendous task with virtually nominal resources. This is especially true for family law. Despite this, we do it. Sometimes we even do it well. One thing is for certain, ...we do not do it alone. Some of us are on the front lines, others behind the scenes. Together, we are finding a way to make it work.
The Family Law Executive Committee for the State Bar of California recognizes this, and wants to take a moment to recognize one of our best in the state. Cathy Mills. Cathy Mills exemplifies the term, court staff person of the year. As Court Services Manager for Alameda County she works tirelessly behind the scenes to assure the process, the forms, the procedures, and front line staff have the resources and knowledge to provide service to every individual who walks through our doors. Although Cathy’s job is to manage, in truth Cathy is more of a mentor, coach, and chief cheerleader to everyone she comes in contact with. People work with her, not for her.
While this is a family law award, Cathy is equally familiar with both civil and criminal processes and procedure which only enhances her already astute abilities to problem solve and think beyond the box. However that is only part of the reason FLEXCOM has selected Cathy as Court Staff person of the year. Cathy clearly is committed to doing the right thing and getting things done. Cathy works tirelessly, often on her own time before and after hours to make sure everyone has what they need, and that where ever possible, the necessary items are in place to insure all of us can do our jobs. Together...as a team.
2010 Judicial Officer of the Year: Marjorie A. Slabach
FLEXCOM presented the Judicial Officer of the Year award to Commissioner Marjorie A. Slabach, Commissioner, Dept. 404, San Francisco Unified Family Law Court, due to her many years of service to the family law community and her dedication to family law. The Family Law Judicial Officer of the Year Reception for Commissioner Slabach was Friday, September 24, 2010, at the State Bar of California Annual Meeting in Monterey.
Commissioner Slabach began practicing law in 1983, became a Certified Family Law Specialist in 1992, and was appointed as a Commissioner in San Francisco's Family Law Department in 1997 where she has served ever since. Commissioner Slabach has been the constant at the Unified Family Court in San Francisco, helping to educate new judicial officers about family law and ensuring consistency within the Department. Commissioner Slabach's extensive substantive knowledge and experience is invaluable to family lawyers and parties in San Francisco, and has helped to move San Francisco's Unified Family Court ahead of the curve in many areas now being addressed by the Elkins Task Force.
Commissioner Slabach has never hesitated to share her vast experience and wisdom. She has volunteered as a speaker at countless continuing educational programs, including presentations for the CEB, AFCC, AAML, the State Bar, BASF, and the Rutter Group.
The Commissioner actively participates with the local family law bar, for instance regularly attending Family Law Section meetings. This dedication to the section and keeping its members informed inspires San Francisco practitioners, who regularly serve in volunteer capacities in various areas of the family court.
Sitting on the bench, for virtually every calendar the Commissioner reads all of the material submitted and has a good working knowledge of the issues presented and case history, which is so critical for good decision making. She also lends a personal touch to her courtroom with her regular opening remarks, which promote a rational approach to the cases and help to facilitate settlement.
In sum, this is a judicial officer who has very much dedicated herself to family law and who has "raised the bar" with respect to excellence in this profession.
2009 Judicial Officer of the Year: Alan B. Clements
The Family Law Section of the State Bar of California had the distinct honor to recognize Commissioner Alan B. Clements of San Diego ( Ret.) as the 2009 Family Law Judicial Officer of the Year and Distinguished Service Award recipient at this years' State Bar Convention in San Diego.
At a reception in Commissioner Clements' honor at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, FLEXCOM Chair, Jill Barr, presented Commissioner Clements (pictured left) with a distinguished plaque and gavel while FLEXCOM member, Michele B. Brown (pictured below), gave the standing room only audience an overview of Commissioner Clements' background and his dedication to family law. Commissioner Clements' speech about the impact family law has had on his life and his heartfelt thanks to the lawyers who work so diligently and honorably in family law confirmed to the audience that FLEXCOM had made the right choice for the judicial officer of the year.
Commissioner Clements always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, as his father (who wasn't able to complete law school) engrained in him from a young age that he would become a lawyer one day.
The Commissioner obtained a B.A. in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, a Masters degree from Chapman College in 1975 and his Juris Doctor degree from Western State University School of Law in 1979. Commissioner Clements passed the California bar exam in 1981 and immediately started his 28-year career in family law.
From the inception of his career, Commissioner Clements practiced exclusively in family law because he "…thought family law was so important and complex it would be foolish to try something else. Because of the nature of family law, I limited myself to the practice of family law."
In 1987 Commissioner Clements became a Certified Family Law Specialist and in 1988 he was the first commissioner ever appointed by the San Diego County Superior Court. From 1988 until his retired from the bench in December 2008, Commissioner Clements presided solely over family law cases. He was the first bench officer to have direct calendaring in family law in San Diego County and he presided over the family law Settlement Conference calendar for years.
From 1988 until his retired from the bench in December 2008, Commissioner Clements presided solely over family law cases. He was the first bench officer to have direct calendaring in family law in San Diego County and he presided over the family law Settlement Conference calendar for years.
The Commissioner has taught and lectured extensively in all areas of family law for the CEB, Rutter Group, California Center for Judicial Education and Research, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the San Diego Certified Family Law Specialists and various other local bar sections. He is a member of the California Judges Association and has been heavily involved with the San Diego County Certified Family Law Specialists Committee, including assisting with the drafting of local rules and business valuation rules.
Although Commissioner Clements is officially retired from the bench, he has not retired from family law. He is still assisting family law litigants through mediation, private judging and continued involvement with the family law bench and bar.
2008 Judicial Officer of the Year: Hon. David L. Haet
Each year the Family Law Section hosts an award reception at the State Bar Annual Meeting for its Judicial Officer of the Year. In 2008 the reception took place at Jeffers Plaza in the Monterey Conference Center from 5:30 p.m. - 7 p.m. on Friday, September 27.
This year’s recipient is the Honorable David L. Haet. This former private practitioner and Certified Family Law Specialist has heard family law cases for nearly two decades as Solano County's first superior court commissioner. A San Francisco native and current resident with his wife, Maggie, of Corte Madera (Marin County), the commissioner is a graduate of U.C. Santa Cruz and took his juris doctorate at U.C. Davis in 1972. He is widely recognized as one of California's most knowledgeable and experienced family law bench officers, and in addition to his judicial functions, he has served on the Judicial Council, the Family and Juvenile Advisory Commission, the Task Force for Judicial Needs, and the California Judicial Education and Research Commission. He has chaired the California Court Commissioners Association, and currently chairs the Family Law Commission for the California Judges Association.
Our hearty congratulations to Commissioner Haet!
2007 Judicial Officer of the Year: Commissioner John Chemeleski
The Family Law section honored Family Law Judicial Officer of the Year, Commissioner John Chemeleski of the Los Angeles County Superior Court. The reception was held during the State Bar of California Annual Meeting on Friday, September 29, 5 p.m. - 6 p.m. in Grand Ballroom B of the Anaheim Marriott.
John Chemeleski, a Minneapolis, Minnesota native, was raised in Echo Park, California. He attended California State University Los Angeles and graduated from Southwestern University Law School before being admitted to the California Bar in 1975. Married to Lynn, his wife for over thirty years, they have two children, a son Mark, who was just awarded the rank of Master in Hapkido karate and his psychologist daughter Kari, who recently secured her Ph.D.
Commissioner Chemeleski, who became a Certified Family Law Specialist in 1981, practiced primarily family law, along with Juvenile Dependency and some Probate through 1994, when he became a Trial Court Commissioner in the Los Angeles Superior Court, assigned to the Family Law Department in South District (Long Beach, CA), where he currently presides.
Commissioner Chemeleski has served on the Los Angeles Superior Court Family Law Committee since 1994, the LASC Rules Committee since 2002, the LASC Domestic Violence Committee since 2000, and was Chair of the Family Law Judicial Seminar Committee in 1998.
Commissioner Chemeleski has served as the LASC representative on the Judicial Council’s Judicial Education and Research’s (CJER) Family Law Education Committee since 2002 and on the DV Forms Simplification Working Group in 2000. He has been a member of the California Judge’s Association, Family Law Legislation Committee since 2004.
Locally, he has been an active Bench Officer member of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Family Law Section Executive Committee since 1995, was a past Chair of the LACBA Subcommittee on Settlement Agreement Form Revision Committee 1998-1999 and in 2004, where he was the primary author of the LASC’s Multi-page Settlement Agreement Form, which is used daily in the Los Angeles Family Law Courts.
Commissioner Chemeleski has an overriding interest in educating family law judges and was a Speaker/Panelist/Presenter for Judges at the California Judicial Education and Research (CJER) Family Law Institute in 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2006.
In addition to teaching at the LASC’s Family Law Judicial Seminars for Judges for nine years, he has presented at seven LACBA Annual Family Law Symposiums, four LACBA Annual Child Custody Colloquiums and numerous at MCLE programs for the LACBA, Beverly Hills Bar Association and Long Beach and South Bay Bar Association seminars.
Commissioner Chemeleski may also be regularly found on the LACBA’s email List-Service, weighing in, with not only Case cites, Code and Court Rule Sections, but also with sage practice pointers on sticky situations, which had been drawing dozens of inconsistent replies from Listserv attorneys. His advice is often sought out on particularly complex fact situations.
In addition to his love for family law and teaching, Commissioner Chemeleski is a history and genealogy buff and has traced his family’s roots into the 1600’s.
For his long, consistent and never ending support of the practice of family law, Commissioner Chemeleski has been chosen FLEXCOM’s Family Law Judicial Officer of the Year.
2006 Judicial Officer of the Year: Hon. Cynda Unger
In 2006, the Family Law Section named Judge Cynda Unger the Judicial Officer Of The Year, Judge Cynda Unger. A reception honoring her was held on October 6, 2006 at the State Bar of California Annual Meeting in Monterey.
The Honorable Cynda Riggins Unger was born in Sacramento, California and raised in nearby Woodland, in Yolo County. Her father was an original member of the San Francisco Ballet Company, and maintained a ballet studio where Cynda was obliged to participate for the first 30 years of her life - until finally her law studies and a 6-year-old son at home combined to persuade her dad she could no longer attend classes.
Judge Unger played competitive tennis as a youngster. She fondly recalls her first job - teaching trampoline for the Woodland Parks and Recreation Department - as her best until her election to the bench. During the interim years, she attended the University of California at Santa Barbara and received a B.A. from U.C. Davis, before graduating with honors the University of the Pacific's McGeorge Law School with Order of the Coif recognition.
After law school, Judge Unger declined a position with a sizeable law firm in Sacramento to enter small town practice with the AV-rated Dobbins, Weir, Thompson, and Stephenson in Vacaville, a decision she has never regretted. She worked in private practice for 13 years, and was certified a Family Law Specialist by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization in 1991. From there, Judge Unger moved on to a stint of almost four years as a Deputy District Attorney for Solano County in the Family Support Division. During her career, she learned a great deal doing legislative work with the State Bar standing committee, and was ultimately appointed to the Family Law Executive Committee (FLEXCOM), where she served until her election as a judge. She also graded the Family Law specialization exam for several years.
In 2000, Judge Unger threw her hat into the ring and won a three-way contested election for an open seat on the Solano County Superior Court bench, where she immediately assumed a family law assignment and ultimately served as presiding judge of the family law department for two years.
Most recently, she has undertaken a new assignment, where she juvenile dependency and delinquency cases, conducts misdemeanor jury trials, and presides over the Proposition 36 Drug Court. Judge Unger regularly team teaches the family law courses for judges facing new family law assignments throughout California, and periodically helps teach other family law-related classes and serves on family law-related panels.
Judge Unger balances her professional life, but not without some overlap. She is married to a Certified Family Law Specialist and Northern California Super Lawyer, with whom she has enjoyed hiking, travel within the States and overseas, and all manner of outdoors activities, to include birding, gardening, and walking their dogs, Toby & Meg. Cynda enjoys time with her family and is learning all she can to become a good horseman. She considers her horse, "Rosie," her "nonjudicial passion."
Judge Unger is also the only known Superior Court Judge in California to actually have a rock band named after her. The heavy metal group, "Judge Unger," saw one of her campaign signs during the election, and took the name as their own, with the real Judge Unger's qualified approval and the band's strict (?) adherence to a few behavioral guidelines she laid down for them.
For her excellent performance on the family law bench, her stellar family law career, singular devotion to the profession, her pursuit of justice and conflict resolution for California families, and her service to the family law community, the Honorable Cynda Riggins Unger is the California State Bar Association Family Law Executive Committee's Judicial Officer of the Year for 2006.
Complete List of Judical Officers of the Year, 1985 to the Present
- 2011: Mark Juhas
- 2010: Marjorie Slabach
- 2009: Alan B. Clements
- 2008: Hon. David L. Haet
- 2007: Commissioner John Chemeleski – Los Angeles
- 2006: Cynda Riggins Unger - Solano
- 2005: William J. Howatt, Jr. – San Diego
- 2004: Commissioner Cynthia Denenholz – Sonoma
- 2003: Aviva K. Bobb – Los Angeles
- 2002: Donna J. Hitchens – San Francisco
- 2001: Commissioner Michael J. Gassner – San Bernardino
- 2000: Ann Hardin Rutherford – Chico
- 1999: Paul Gutman – Los Angeles
- 1998: Mary Ann Grilli – San Jose
- 1997: Robert A. Schnider – Los Angeles
- 1996: Commissioner Melissa Tobin – San Francisco (deceased)
- 1995: Charles Kobayashi – Sacramento
- 1994: James H. Libbey – Martinez
- 1993:Thomas Ashworth III – San Diego and Frederick A. Mandabach – Rancho Cucamonga
- 1992: James Garbolino – Auburn
- 1990: Andrew G. Wagner – San Diego (deceased)
- 1989: Kenneth A. Black – Los Angeles
- 1988: Donald B. King – San Francisco
- 1987: Thomas R. Murphy – San Diego
- 1986: Rex H. Sater – Sonoma
- 1985: Anthony C. Joseph – San Diego