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A new era begins this week when Bernadette D'Souza takes office on Thursday, March 1, as the first judge of Domestic Section 1 at Civil District Court (CDC). D'Souza will hear only cases involving divorce, custody, spousal support, child support, community property, paternity and civil protection orders in domestic violence cases.
"There's a growing trend across the country for specialization of courts, especially in domestic or family law matters," D'Souza told me recently. "I ran for judge in 2004 on a platform of dedicating several sections at Civil District Court to domestic matters. For too many years those cases were simply allotted to the newest judges, and they got passed down every time a vacancy occurred."
That system sometimes led to inconsistent judgments, but it took an act of the state Legislature to address the problem. A statute enacted last year creates two sections at CDC with dockets limited to domestic matters. The law, authored by former state Sen. Julie Quinn, calls for the next two vacant judgeships to be redesignated as Domestic Sections 1 and 2. The same law creates domestic sections in Jefferson Parish as well.
The first New Orleans vacancy occurred recently when former CDC Section K Judge Herbert Cade took office as the newest judge at Traffic Court. D'Souza won the ensuing special election to Cade's seat when all of her opponents withdrew. She now becomes not only the first Domestic Court judge at CDC but also the first Indian-American woman judge in the state.
D'Souza, 57, was born in Goa, India. She moved to the U.S. in 1978 and graduated from Tulane Law School in 1992. She spent her entire legal career representing clients who could not afford private attorneys. That experience shaped her vision of how the courts could provide indigent litigants with easier access to the legal system.
"I understand the resources that are out there to help litigants when they come before our court," D'Souza says. "Sixty-five to 70 percent of litigants that come into domestic court are pro se (self-represented) litigants. ... My vision is to have a kiosk at the courthouse where self-represented litigants can put in all their information and file their petitions."
CDC already has a help desk at which self-represented clients can get limited assistance. D'Souza says she hopes the court can find ways to take that assistance to the next level. "I hope to partner with the Access to Justice Committee of the state Bar Association to provide more assistance in domestic court. ... So many people come through Legal Services that we cannot represent them all. We have to make it easier for people who are forced to represent themselves."
D'Souza also hopes the trend toward specialization of courts will enable the city's new Domestic Court to work more closely with Juvenile Court, Criminal Court and Municipal Court to help protect children. "When children are involved in or affected by domestic violence cases, the matter goes to CDC to provide for custody of the minor children," she says. "I want to have open communication with the other courts so that there are no inconsistencies in judgments granted."
Domestic cases are stressful for attorneys as well as clients. Having judges who hear only domestic matters will at least give litigants hope that their cases are being handled with some measure of consistency.