Private Judge Handles Aniston-Pitt Divorce

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Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt finalized their divorce Tuesday thanks to Jill Robbins, a private judge. By using her services, Pitt and Aniston were able to keep the proceedings private. They were also able to expedite the divorce.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We have paid remarkably little attention on this program to a story that has confronted millions of supermarket shoppers on the checkout line and millions of viewers of TV gossip shows. I'm referring to the dissolution of the marriage of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, which, unless you've been up on the International Space Station, you've probably been at least vaguely aware of.

We bring it up here because of one crucial detail in yesterday's news. It said a private judge signed off on court papers finalizing the divorce. We were curious about the phenomenon of private judges, who do not just mediation or arbitration but divorce. Richard Reuben teaches alternative dispute resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, and he joins us now.

Professor Reuben, most unhappily married people who give up on the institution deal with what I used to think of as a real judge. But in California, something different?

Professor RICHARD REUBEN (University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law): Yes. California does permit parties to ask a court to refer them out to what's called a private judge, sometimes called, somewhat pejoratively, a rent-a-judge. And that private judge will full jurisdiction over the case and needs to apply the rule of law, and his or her decision is as binding as any other court's. The big difference is that it happens in private.

SIEGEL: But at some point along the line, this has to go back to a real judge, doesn't it?

Prof. REUBEN: Indeed, it does. The private judge's decision is technically just a recommendation, although that recommendation is almost always accepted by the court.

SIEGEL: Now to what extent do Mr. Pitt and Ms. Aniston--or, for that matter, any other unhappily married couple--gain greater privacy in their divorce proceedings by going to a private judge or someone who might be disparaged as a rent-a-judge?

Prof. REUBEN: They get a lot more privacy. In a private judging situation, it's private. The press does not have a right to be there; the public does not have a right to be there; there's no public docket.

SIEGEL: And as the public, we have no right to know the terms of a divorce if it's filed this way with a judge?

Prof. REUBEN: Well, that's the way the law would appear right now. But interestingly, the press has, not to this date, ever pressed the issue. So as a practical matter, the press does not have a right to be there until it's able to argue that it should have a right. But as of this point, I'd say the answer is no.

SIEGEL: This was a high-profile Hollywood divorce, but this sort of thing, the idea of the private judge, is not unique to California, I gather.

Prof. REUBEN: That's right, and a few other states have it: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and the state of Washington.

SIEGEL: Now I've seen various sources giving figures for how much a private judge is paid for his--or in the case of this big prominent divorce, her services. I've seen numbers either $350 per hour, up to $800 per hour. In any case, it sounds like it could be pretty expensive; $2,000 a day at a pretty low rate.

Prof. REUBEN: That's right. It could be expensive. It, indeed, can go from a low range up to hundreds, even over a thousand dollars an hour. That's sometimes considered a good investment. For example, my sense is that Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt probably viewed that as a good investment on their privacy.

SIEGEL: Now at the risk of sounding like a wild-eyed, egalitarian idealist, might there not be something inherently unfair about this, that people with money can not only hire the lawyers they want, but the judge they want and get the privacy that they want and get the timetable that they want for their divorce?

Prof. REUBEN: It sure would seem as though it's manifestly unfair. But in fact, the law, in a lot of different areas and for a lot of different reasons, really does promote the private settlement of disputes as opposed to the litigation of every little issue. So this is something that the law has an interest in; not just because of overcrowding, but because so often you end up with a result that's more acceptable to the parties and, therefore, more easy to enforce.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Reuben, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. REUBEN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Richard Reuben teaches alternative dispute resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia Law School. He spoke to us from Columbia, Missouri.

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