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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Background in family therapy grounds 2014 Aranda award winner

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Sue Alexander did not realize what she was getting herself into.

Sue Alexander
Alexander - Photo by S. Todd Rogers

Deciding to apply for an open Alameda County court commissioner slot, Alexander filed her paperwork just 15 minutes before the deadline. Though she didn’t know it then, Alexander would have a gargantuan task in front of her: executing the changes under Assembly Bill 1058, landmark 1997 legislation that transformed the way child support cases are handled in California.

As Alameda County’s first child support commissioner, Alexander rose to that challenge and to many more after that, friends and colleagues say, forging a track record that led to her selection as this year’s recipient of the Benjamin Aranda Award.

On Aug. 21, Alexander, 63, will be the first commissioner to receive the award given by the State Bar, the Judicial Council, California Judges Association and the California Commission on Access to Justice. It recognizes judicial officers who have shown a long-term commitment to improving access to the courts, particularly for the poor and those of moderate means.

Alexander said the award came as a complete surprise. She considers it a testament to the good work done by commissioners across the state.

“I was shocked, first of all. I never considered they would ever nominate a commissioner. It never occurred to me I was eligible,” she said. “I was very surprised. I was doubly surprised when they said I got it.”

Sherry Peterson, a Dublin, Calif. family law attorney who worked with Alexander to launch the Essentials Program, which helps train attorneys in outlying areas in family law, made no secret of her excitement upon learning Alexander was chosen.

“One of the things about Sue is she’s got the vision to see the whole package, work with court staff,” she said. “So many people just see this little window of what their job should be. She sees the whole picture.”

In addition to teaching numerous programs for groups including the Center for Judicial Education and Research (CJER), Alexander has been on far more committees than Peterson could name.

“How many people take that on for the number of years she has and have a major effect?” Peterson said.

Alexander has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in marriage, family and child counseling from San Jose State University. A negative experience with a family law attorney while trying to get referrals for her therapy practice helped to get her thinking about becoming one herself.

Back in October 1997, Alexander arrived for the first day of her job at Alameda County Superior Court to find a desk full of supplies and a big challenge.

No program had been set up to implement AB 1058 in Alameda County. Alexander and the two family law facilitators sat down to lunch and said, “What do we do? What should it look like?” Alexander recalled.

“It wasn’t just walking into a job … it was making something from scratch.”

Before AB 1058 was passed, parents who paid child support were disenfranchised from the system and from the district attorneys’ offices that were tasked with collecting child support payments. Used to dealing with criminal defendants, prosecutors tended to view parents who owed child support as “deadbeat dads, whether they were or not,” Alexander said.

District attorneys’ offices were also able to go back three full years from the filing of a complaint to collect child support, even though the parent may have just learned they had a child.

The parents, on the other hand, “felt that they didn’t have a right to say anything,” she said. “This set up a whole different dynamic.”

As a result of the law, a governmental agency can only begin collecting from the time a child support complaint is filed. Collection of the debts is now the responsibility of the Department of Child Support Services.

To help make the transition smoother, Alexander created a working group of family law facilitators, whose job was to help unrepresented litigants, and the district attorney’s office, which needed to consider the obstacles parents faced paying child support. Also included in those discussions was the private bar, to ensure litigants had meaningful access to the courts and support.

“She would convene monthly meetings with court personnel,” said Deborah Chase, a former family law facilitator who now works for the Judicial Council. “She had the understanding we all had to work together no matter what differences we had.”

Chase called Alexander “very conscientious and brilliant,” noting her participation on numerous committees and task forces.

“She’s irrepressible, energy-wise,” she said.

During her time as a family law commissioner Alexander also set up a system that allowed family law and child support cases to be heard by the same judicial officer at the same time, making it easier on litigants and more efficient for the court.

Alexander was a member of both the Elkins Task Force and the Elkins Implementation Task Force, convened to improve efficiency and fairness in family law proceedings, and drafted many of the task force’s final recommendations. She currently serves as an advisory member on the Judicial Council.

Alexander has also been involved extensively with CJER, among other groups, developing workshops around ethics and issues with self-represented litigants. She also developed bias training for new family law judges during their orientation.

“No one was talking about institutional biases,” she explained. “I realized I had a bias against home schooling.

“I had a case when a mother wanted home schooling, the father did not. She had a great plan. I said, ‘I really can’t knee-jerk that issue.’ ”

Alexander said she’s always been driven to find ways to make the system better, something she attributes to her therapy background.

Alexander, who enjoys singing, hiking and visiting state parks with her husband, Darrell Davis, Alexander was originally drawn to computers, taking computer data programming at Chabot College in Hayward.

Looking back, Alexander said she would have regretted choosing computers over the work she’s done to help others.

“My mother always thought I should go into psychology,” she said. “I had to bite the bullet and realize she was more right than I was.”