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Aranda winner honored for bettering family court

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Francisco F. Firmat
Firmat

In Orange County family court, where some 16,000 people seeking a divorce come into the building without a lawyer every year, they can thank one man for helping to move their cases along expeditiously. So can the many non-English-speaking parties who benefit from an interpreter intern program. Even local clergy have been trained to respond appropriately when a victim of domestic violence turns to the church for help.

Francisco F. Firmat, supervising judge of the county’s Family Law Panel, has initiated an impressive array of programs designed to ease the difficulties encountered by individuals who find themselves in family court, particularly those who are there without the help of a lawyer. “One does not need to be in Judge Firmat’s courtroom long to realize that he possesses a true desire and intent to make this process as amicable and efficient as possible,” said John S. Cowhig, president of the Orange County Bar Association’s family law section. “He is the epitome of patience, understanding, neutrality and justice.”

In recognition of his long-term commitment to improving access to justice, Firmat is the recipient of the 2008 Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award, cosponsored by the State Bar, Judicial Council and the California Judges Association. The award was created by the California Commission on Access to Justice.

A judge since 1985, Firmat took over the family law panel of 17 judicial officers in 2004. Almost immediately, he said, an example of the kinds of problems faced by family law litigants arrived in his courtroom. A couple who did not speak English brought their 14-year-old daughter with them to act as an interpreter. Only one person showed up for a subsequent court date. “How can anyone have quality of justice if they can’t make themselves understood?” Firmat asked.

He soon approached California State University, Los Angeles, and arranged for students in its Spanish interpreter certification program to volunteer to help self-represented litigants. The program now is operated through Cal State Fullerton, which provides 10 interns each week to help with dissolution cases without state-funded interpreters.

The interpreter program is one of about a dozen initiatives Firmat has undertaken since joining the family law panel, many designed to address unrepresented litigants, who make up two-thirds of the court’s divorce cases and 80 percent of its domestic violence matters. With a collaborative approach, Firmat cultivates a spirit of public service within the family panel, say court observers, and he has developed a reputation for successfully bringing parties to settlement using techniques that allow people to resolve their disputes with dignity.

  • He created a self-represented party calendar, a two-day-per-week program that has resulted in more than half the cases ending in full settlement. Volunteers help litigants “get a divorce in a single day,” Firmat explained. “It’s a different quality of justice altogether that makes a quick determination and calls the next case.”
  • Bimonthly “town hall” meetings allow attorneys, parties and members of the public to meet with Firmat and his staff to air their concerns. “I believe in everything I do that I need fresh eyes, I need the eyes of others,” Firmat said. “We’re so used to the status quo that we don’t see our own flaws.”
  • Firmat instituted electronic delivery of domestic violence orders to law enforcement agencies; he also developed new forms that guarantee expedited processing and have resulted in quick judgments. Family law judgments are now processed within two working days of submission.
  • He approached the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University to design a mediation course for judges in four counties. Firmat himself often holds settlement conferences from the bench, for both self-represented litigants and parties with lawyers.

“Imagine a two-day trial and somebody who wants to tell their story, but the other side is constantly objecting,” Firmat said. “After two days, the judge gives a ruling and the person leaves unhappy.” In contrast, when he mediates from the bench, both sides talk to him and he issues a quick decision. “People leave my courtroom and they thank me,” he said.

“For many, judging is a processing of cases, rather than a peacemaking or helping people out of a Catch-22 situation. We need more settlement ability. There’s too much emphasis on bringing a case to closure by hearing a case instead of getting involved in solving a case.”

Born in Cuba, Firmat gained an early familiarity with the law from his father, who was a judge. Because he joined other members of the judiciary in opposing a vote of confidence in Fidel Castro, the elder Firmat was ousted from his courtroom the next day by soldiers loyal to the new Cuban leader.

Firmat’s parents sent him and his sisters out of the country through the Peter Pan Program, a clandestine operation that placed 14,000 Cuban children in orphanages in the U.S. in 1961. His parents followed four and a half months later; his dad began a new life scrubbing floors at the Hilton Hotel in Denver.

After four years in snowy Colorado, the family moved to California. Law always was a possible career, Firmat said, and he earned his law degree from Western State University. He operated a general practice, with a primarily Hispanic clientele. His father’s experience taught Firmat the importance of an independent judiciary. “It’s huge, huge,” he said. “We, as members of the judiciary, have to do a better job of guaranteeing access to justice as part of maintaining an independent judiciary.”

Firmat has earned wide respect in the local legal community for, among other reasons, viewing himself as a public servant. “He has no agenda other than to try to touch the lives of all of the litigants that pass through his courtrooms, represented or unrepresented, and to treat all in an equal and fair manner, with dignity and respect,” said Daniel James Boehm, a Santa Ana family law attorney.

Although Firmat has received numerous awards, he said the Aranda Award “is the biggest one of all.” After all, it’s about his favorite cause — “It’s about access to justice.”

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