Private Judges—Are They Just for the Rich and Famous?

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Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s contentious divorce has made headlines numerous times in the nearly five years since Jolie first filed in late summer 2016, citing “irreconcilable differences.”  Though their marriage was officially over in 2019, certain divorce matters —including child custody—were still being finalized.  Now they’re in the news again. The ongoing custody battle, which was nearing conclusion, has taken a turn and may “just be getting started,” according to the Associated Press. This reboot could cost the famous exes millions of dollars.

Like many celebrities, to protect their privacy Jolie and Pitt hired a private judge to preside over their divorce. The couple agreed on John W. Ouderkirk, who married them in 2014. But last month, California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal handed a big victory to Jolie’s team, ruling that Judge Ouderkirk acted unethically by not sufficiently disclosing a business relationship with Pitt’s attorneys, resulting in his disqualification. Now they may be back to square one.

A story like this can be confusing to people unfamiliar with private judging. What is a private judge? Are they just for movie stars? Or are there times when a private judge might be helpful in your case?

A private judge—or judge pro tempore—is a legal professional selected by the parties and hired by their attorneys to decide the case. It’s worthwhile to know that choosing a private judge is an option—a golden statuette not required. But there are pros and cons to consider.


Choosing a private judge can give you a bit more control over the process of your divorce.

Speed and Efficiency

Though there’s no guarantee, a private judge may be able to move your case along more quickly. Judges sitting in the public family court frequently have dozens of cases before them at a time, and the system can be backlogged and slow.

Knowledge and Involvement

Having more time to dedicate means a private judge can better understand the unique circumstances and facts of your case, assess all applicable laws, and present all the options.


Private judges tend to have a great deal of experience. They are often retired judges or family court lawyers. In the public court, by contrast, a judge may have years of experience in the field, or you may be assigned someone new to family law.



While it’s good that a private judge can spend more time with you, and considering the details of your case, remember you will be paying handsomely for that time. Private judges may charge upwards of $650 per hour.

Benefits to Public Court

The disadvantages of public court have an upside—the slowness and backlog may pressure both parties and their lawyers to get through the process as quickly and smoothly as possible. Knowing a lengthy court battle will eat up time and money can motivate everyone—especially in a reasonably amicable divorce—to resolve the case swiftly.

There are many logistical and personal factors to consider when deciding whether to divorce in the public court system or hire a private judge. It’s essential to work with an experienced family law attorney with expertise in complex cases. The attorneys at SFLG focus exclusively on family law, specializing in high-conflict, high-stakes cases involving professionals and spouses of high-net-worth individuals.

By Debra Schoenberg

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