The race is on in the judges’ elections in the Dallas Family Law District Courts.
The following series of articles will hopefully be a non-partisan profile of the candidates running for the various judicial positions in the Family Law District Courts in Dallas.
The first of these articles is an interview with Jeff Coen who is running on the Republican ticket for election as District Judge for the 254th Judicial District Court in Dallas County, Texas. Jeff’s biography and profile can be accessed at www.coenforjudge.com. Jeff has had extensive experience in the judicial arena having been an Associate Judge for the 302nd Judicial District Court, then the 303rd Judicial District Court and then being appointed as the District Judge of the 254th Judicial District Court in 2002 by Rick Perry, and later being elected and holding that position until 2006. Jeff has been practicing law since 1976, and in the later years primarily in Family Law. He is a board certified Family Law attorney. For the past four years, Jeff has been working as a mediator, again with an emphasis in Family Law mediation.
Jeff brings to the table a desire to regain the confidence of the legal community through his consistency in his rulings and court procedures as well as being accessible to lawyers and self-represented litigants. He feels that lawyers need to be able to count on his being there everyday to handle his docket. He hopes to improve the current court procedures in the 254th and its efficiency, and to work with attorneys through their suggestions in this regard, thus making his court more “user-friendly.”
When asked if he would rule in accordance with the law on a specific topic, Jeff replied, “We all want to do the right thing regardless of the law, but not everyone’s perception is the same as to what is the right thing; therefore, rulings must be based in law and precedent.” Attorneys have complained that they hate to try a case in some courts because they just can’t rely on the judge’s consistency. Mr. Coen believes that a judge must be consistent to gain the trust of the attorneys and the community. Attorneys need to be able to advise their clients on what could be expected within a given set of circumstances and to be able to rely on that in trial so that adequate preparation can be made. Attorneys do not appreciate surprises, especially in Court. A judge’s consistency also relates to mediation of cases. Both the mediator and the attorney need to feel a certain comfort level in the manner in which a judge may rule on a particular set of circumstances in order to help the client make informed decisions.
A specific issue that has been arising more in recent months in courts is the topic of one parent, typically the primary parent, having to relocate to either keep his or her job or to obtain employment. In the past year, this country has seen many job losses, and unemployment.
A hypothetical question was posed:
1. The father has been active in the children’s life, has maintained his standard possession, but has not been able to attend every event of the children, attend every doctor’s appointment or parent-teacher conference, even though he does care about his children.
2. The mother, named as the primary conservator of the children, has to relocate to either keep her job or to take a job to obtain gainful employment.
Should the Court allow the mother to relocate out of the state or to a county over 100 miles away in the same state with the children.
Mr. Coen’s said this is a balancing test and cited Bates v Tesar, 81 S.W.3d 411 (Tex.App –El Paso, 2002) as guiding precedent. Jeff said that you would have to balance the impact of the children seeing the father less frequently with what is gained by the mother’s employment and how that would satisfy the best interest of the children. He said the factors that the Court should consider are outlined in Bates v Tesar. Further, relocation decisions must be decided on case specifics.
When asked about making contempt orders regarding a non-paying child support obligor, Jeff’s response was that again the case specifics need to be considered. If a non-paying child support obligor has the ability to pay, and has refused to pay, then that non-paying obligor needs to be ready to spend some time in jail. However, if the non-paying obligor has recently lost his or her job (not intentionally), and has been unemployed for a length of time, then an order requiring the non-paying obligor to submit to community supervision, work with the Texas Workforce Commission to gain employment, and have regular report-back hearings with the Court may be the better scenario, and would hopefully lead to the non-paying obligor finding employment and enabling him or her to pay child support. One of Jeff’s goals is to work with the C.A.R.E. program to implement programs for unemployed, underemployed and/or underpaid persons to work with the Texas Workforce Commission to obtain better jobs and better pay.
Recent legislation changed the rule about a child 12 years or older being allowed to sign an affidavit of choice of managing conservator, thus eliminating “dueling affidavits.” The Courts are now required to interview a child in chambers in a custody case if requested by a party or on the Court’s own motion. Jeff believes that a child should be interviewed, but only after all the fact finding has been accomplished such as after social studies are concluded. In interviews with children, Jeff says the most common statement a child makes is, “I want my parents to stay together.” After the child realizes this is not likely to happen, then Jeff says the next most common statement from a child is, “I want the fighting to stop.” Eventually the child will state where they feel most comfortable and why, but typically a child does not like being placed in the position of making a choice between Mom or Dad. However, Jeff, does believe that a child likes to have the feeling that he or she was heard. The interview with the child is not the deciding factor, but helps to give a more complete picture of the family unit and how it functions.
In discussing if Mr. Coen would appoint a non-attorney mediator to a Family Law case, he stated that he would not have problem in appointing a non-attorney mediator so long as the mediator had extensive knowledge of Family Law and preferably had worked in the field gaining further understanding of the Court system and the Texas Family Code. Jeff did state that typically the attorneys have already selected the mediator they wish to use rather than his needing to appoint one.
Further, Mr. Coen mention that these are “challenging times with budget cuts throughout the County which are infused with highly charged political views as recently seen in the arguments erupting in the Dallas County Commissioners Court.” Mr. Coen would take the road not to battle with the Commissioners, but rather to work cooperatively to accomplish common goals.
To summarize, Mr. Coen’s overall experience as an Associate Judge and District Judge together with his background in Family Law and mediation makes him a strong candidate. Jeff believes that his mediation experience has given him the ability to better understand the emotional aspects and the details important to litigants that would appear in his Court.