The Robe

Kelly Chang Rickert on being the girl who’s blindfolded with the justice scales

Published in 2011 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2011

Once a month, Kelly Chang Rickert doesn’t need to plan her outfit. “I can wear anything because the gown is over it,” says the 35-year-old certified family law specialist, who, 12 days a year, volunteers as a temporary judge in the LA County Superior Court.

She first learned of the position while serving as a volunteer courthouse mediator on family law cases—an extension of her day job as a family law practitioner.

“In LA County, there’s a lot of need for temporary judges because the judges that are on the bench have four weeks’ vacation, or they’re sick, and they have nobody to cover their courtroom,” she says. “So they look to the attorneys to volunteer to be temporary judges to cover those days.”

Attorneys available to sit as temporary judges are limited to those who have practiced more than 10 years and are in good standing. Recent budget cuts have only increased the backlog of cases. “If that courtroom is not covered, [cases are] put on hold. It’s robbing people of their due process,” she says.

She had to attend a couple days of training for small claims court, where she sits, as well as undergo a bench demeanor and conduct course. “Basically,” she says, “how to appear on the bench; how to be unbiased; how to make rulings. What to say; what not to say. For example, ‘visually impaired’ instead of ‘blind.’ You can’t say ‘deaf.’ There has to be no appearance of impropriety.”

Even with the training, Chang Rickert says, there’s a mental transition from advocate to judge. “As a lawyer you just argue one side and you get so adamant. But as a judge you become this impartial person,” she says. “You have to be that girl who’s blindfolded with the justice scales.

“It’s given me insight into the limits of a person,” she adds. “I think everybody thinks judges know everything. But that’s the lawyer’s job. The law is comprised of millions and millions of laws, but it is a lawyer’s job to grab that law and argue it to the judge who might not know the law. I know … weird, right?”

Chang Rickert, who has also volunteered at Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, began pro bono work in San Francisco at a domestic violence clinic because she wanted to expand her horizons beyond her corporate job. When she moved to LA in 2004, she opened her own family law practice.

Of course, this is LA.

“I did a couple commercials, and I was doing some acting for money on the side while my law firm was building,” she says. “It was rough the first couple of years and I was still volunteering because I didn’t have a lot of paying clients yet. But it was all worth it—eating the cup of noodles.”

She’s got entertainment clients but when the media calls they’re looking for her comments. TV Guide, MTV, Dr. Phil and Law & Order have rung. Most recently, she was interviewed on Inside Edition about Charlie Sheen’s custody battle.

She won’t ditch it all for the bench anytime soon. “I’m a Type-A, no-nonsense, speak-my-mind personality, and I think to be a judge you have to take away some of that,” she says. “Maybe when I’m 50 and I’ve calmed down a little.”

In the meantime, she has one request. “I’m 90 pounds and 5’4”,” she says. “All the [judicial] robes are one-size-fits-all. Get a small-person robe for me!”

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