Superior Court family law judge Mark Juhas, the Pasadena Bar Associations Judge of the Year, solves problems while dispensing justice.
By: Tony Biasotti
Image by: Mowry
Mark Juhas of La Cañada Flintridge followed what he calls “the traditional path” to his position as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge: a long career at the same downtown L.A. law firm, followed by an appointment to the bench. But there’s one way in which his road took an unexpected turn. Juhas (pronounced YOU-hass) spent more than 20 years practicing products liability and insurance defense. When Gov. Gray Davis appointed him to the bench in 2002, it was as a general-purpose judge, which is the way judicial appointments work in California. “You serve at the need of the court,” Juhas says. “We needed a family law judge in Palmdale, so that’s where I went, and after a few years I came downtown.”
He took to the work immediately. While family court is still in some ways an adversarial environment, it’s much less adversarial than criminal or civil court, and that allows Juhas to put his empathy and problem-solving talents to work. “It’s been a really good fit,” he says. “The serendipitous nature of it worked out really well.”
After 14 years, Juhas wouldn’t dream of leaving the family law courtroom. He’s recognized as an expert in the field, a frequent speaker and author on family topics, and is the chairman of the State Bar of California’s Commission on Access to Justice. He was also recently chosen as the Pasadena Bar Association’s Judge of the Year, an honor the group bestows annually.
Don Schweitzer, an attorney with a family law practice in Pasadena and a past president of the Pasadena Bar Association, nominated Juhas for the award. Juhas, he says, “is considered to be one of the most experienced and competent family law judges in Los Angeles County, if not within the state of California.” The award is given for judicial excellence, and nothing else, Schweitzer said, but it didn’t hurt that Juhas lives in La Cañada Flintridge and is active in the Tournament of Roses. “We would have voted him Judge of the Year even if he lived on the other side of L.A., but the fact that he’s a local judge was icing on the cake,” he says.
The thing that sets Juhas apart is his “perfect judicial temperament,” Schweitzer says. He is courteous and easy to talk to, but firm in his judgments and confident in his knowledge of the law. “One of the things you have to be is very even-tempered,” Schweitzer says. “You have to filter out your own biases. That’s true of every judge, but even more so for family law judges. He has a big heart for people who are going through probably the most traumatic experiences of the their lives, and he really appreciates that.”
In most cases, the traumatic experience that lands people in Juhas courtroom is a divorce or a child custody dispute. He does not handle cases of child abuse or neglect, or other circumstances in which a child is an independent party in the case; those are handled in dependency court. “When a kid gets detained and put into foster care, that’s a dependency case,” Juhas says. “A family case is Mom and Dad having a dispute about how much time the kid is going to spend with each parent.” So the cases in Juhas’ courtroom often involve people who care for each other, or at least for their children, and sometimes need to be reminded of that fact.
“Most people when they’re going through a dissolution, or never-married parents who are trying to figure out how this is going to work out, aren’t using their best parenting skills,” Juhas says. “They’ve lost sight of what the kids need and we’re sort of reminding them from time to time.”
Juhas is 62, and has an 11-year-old son. Most judges his age have adult children, and Juhas says his experience as a parent gives him a little extra insight into, and empathy for, what parents in his courtroom are going through. “The difficult areas are with kids, obviously,” he says. “You want to do things in a way that’s going to allow both parents to find their way, but also that’s going to allow the child to find his or her way.”
Traditionally, divorces have made up the bulk of a family court’s caseload. That’s still generally true, but Juhas said there are now a lot more cases involving parents who were never married and have disputes about custody or child support. “Every family’s unique, but folks that have been married usually have kind of a common ground, a history together, and some never-marrieds do and some do not. Sometimes there’s not a common trust between them that can create a solution.”
It’s common in family court for participants to appear without an attorney. That creates its own challenges, and that’s what has led Juhas to his work with the California Commission On Access To Justice. It’s an independent commission supported by the State Bar, with representatives of the bar, the business community, churches, the governor’s office and the legislature. “Our task is to keep an eye on access and to make comments along the way where we think there could be a little assistance,” he says. “We have a bully pulpit and we use it.” The commission recently helped secure a $5 million allocation from the state for improved access to legal representation, Juhas says.
Juhas is also a proponent of something called “unbundling,” or “limited scope representation,” which he detailed in a recent article for the California Bar Journal. Through unbundled legal services, a client who wouldn’t otherwise have any representation can get a lawyer to help with certain elements of a case, such as drafting briefs.
Juhas is originally from Colorado, and went to Colorado College, a private liberal arts school in Colorado Springs. After law school at the University of Puget Sound, he came to Southern California and has lived in the Pasadena area ever since.Though it’s been a decade and a half since he practiced law, he still runs his courtroom with the lawyers in mind. “Here’s what I think makes a good judge,” he says, “when I was a practicing lawyer…you wanted a courtroom that was easy to be in. I try to make it as pleasant an environment as you can make a courtroom. Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes that’s hard, but we try as hard as we can, and I think we run a pleasant courtroom to be in, even though it’s not always the most pleasant time for everyone.”