Perspective of a Law Student: How my views on court decisions have changed after 2 years of law school
by Alyssa Miller
Before law school I perceived court cases and the decisions made to be widely within the discretion of the judge deciding the case. I knew that the judge must make determinations based on applicable law, but viewed judges as having more discretion than they actually do.
After just a few weeks of law school I realized that this perception of judges and court rulings was incorrect.
Law suits are not popularity contests nor do they hinge entirely upon who tells the best stories.
Although judges do have some discretion in making their ruling, I hadn’t realized how much judges are required to rely (or supposed to rely) upon “factors” and “elements” found in the applicable laws when making their decisions. Further, I learned that prevail in a law suit the attorneys representing each party have an obligation to “prove” or meet certain elements of a claim or defense.
When a judge decides a case, he/she must determine whether the parties have made their respective sides of a case. Depending on what is at issue in the case, the parties and their attorneys must present witness testimony and other evidence to meet certain “factors” that the judge will rely upon when making his final determination.
For example, when deciding a child custody case, it is common to hear the judge refer to “the best interest of the child” when making a determination. But what does that actually mean? In Utah, the factors that a judge must use when making a “best interest of the child” determination are found in Utah Code § 30-3-10. According to this section of the Utah Code, “The court shall consider the best interest of the child without preference for either parent . . . and shall consider, among other factors the court finds relevant,” factors that include, but are not limited to:
- the past conduct and demonstrated moral standards of each of the parties;
- which parent is most likely to act in the best interest of the child, including allowing the child frequent and continuing contact with the noncustodial parent;
- the extent of bonding between the parent and child, meaning the depth, quality, and nature of the relationship between a parent and child; and
- whether the parent has intentionally exposed the child to [harmful material].
So for a parent to effectively go through a child custody case, that parent must present evidence and a persuasive argument that it is in the best interest of their child that the court rule in that parent’s favor. The parent does so by showing that each—or at least most—of these factors are met.
Another example in the context of child custody is the determination of joint custody. The court may order joint custody (joint legal custody or joint physical or both joint legal and joint physical custody) if it determines, again, that joint custody is in the best interest of the child. In determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal or physical custody, the court is required to consider another set of factors found in Utah Code § 30-3-10.2. These factors include, but are not limited to:
- whether the physical, psychological, and emotional needs and development of the child will benefit from joint legal or physical custody;
- the ability of the parents to give first priority to the welfare of the child and reach shared decisions in the child’s best interest;
- whether each parent is capable of encouraging and accepting a positive relationship between the child and the other parent, including the sharing of love, affection, and contact between the child and the other parent;
- whether both parents participated in raising the child before the divorce;
- the geographical proximity of the homes of the parents;
- the preference of the child if the child is of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference as to joint legal or physical custody;
- the maturity of the parents and their willingness and ability to protect the child from conflict that may arise between the parents;
- the past and present ability of the parents to cooperate with each other and make decisions jointly;
- any history of, or potential for, child abuse, spouse abuse or kidnaping; and
- any other factors the court finds relevant.
In making these determinations, the court is held to a “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This means that the court must find that these factors to be more likely true than untrue (or, in other words, there is greater than fifty percent chance that the parent’s version of the facts is true). So while judges have discretion—indeed very broad discretion—in making their rulings, they are not allowed to disregard the preponderance of the evidence or to disregard the legal factors that guide their decisions. Understanding the applicable law and standard of proof are the first steps to determining how strong a case you have and how to make the best arguments in our case’s favor.
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