In Snohomish County, commissioners rather than judges decide the outcome of most family law motions, including temporary orders. If you’re fighting a contested divorce or custody battle, chances are you’ll end up before a commissioner far more often than a judge. The following are profiles of Snohomish County’s five family law commissioners:
1) The Honorable Susan C. Gaer
Background: Commissioner Gaer is the second newest court commissioner in Snohomish County, having been appointed to the bench in 2008. Prior to becoming a court commissioner, she was a star public defender who tried some of the county’s most difficult criminal cases.
Personality: She can be brusque at times. Wear your thick skin, just in case.
Tendencies: Commissioner Gaer reads what she’s supposed to, and she does it very well. Local court rules require parties to submit advance “working copies” of any materials they want the commissioner to consider at a hearing. Commissioner Gaer reads these working copies closely, takes notes, and synthesizes the information before the hearing begins. She also draws astute connections. Rarely do attorneys leave her courtroom disappointed in her ability to understand the case, regardless the outcome.
When calculating spousal maintenance awards, she looks at numerous factors but often ends up leaving the parties with approximately equal amounts of net income.
It’s also worth noting she does not count captions when calculating whether a declaration exceeds page limitations. For example, she allows reply declarations of about 5 ½ pages, whereas local rules only allow five.
2) The Honorable Lester H. Stewart
Background: Though he might not look it, Commissioner Stewart is the longest sitting family law commissioner in Snohomish County with decades of experience on the bench. He has a mind for numbers and almost became a mathematician. When lawyers list calculations during oral argument he generally follows along ably.
Personality: He talks quickly, is kind, and wants parties to work out their differences rather than come before the court. At the beginning of a calendar, he’ll often advise parties to go into the hallway and try to settle before their case is called. If the case nonetheless ends up before him, he shows compassion and civility to both sides. He regularly complements the attorneys for both parties after rendering a decision.
Tendencies: Oral argument is extremely important for Commissioner Stewart. When before him, you should orally relate all major points and all relief you’re requesting. You’re limited to five minutes of oral argument, which means you need to come to the hearing with a prepared, well-rehearsed oral presentation. Expect him to interject with comments and questions.
He doesn’t like you to object more than once during the other side’s oral argument. If you have additional objections, voice them during your own oral presentation.
As for spousal maintenance and undifferentiated support, Commissioner Stewart usually equalizes the parties’ net incomes. For example, if the wife makes $2,000 per month net and the husband makes $6,000, Commissioner Stewart will usually award the wife $2,000, leaving both parties with $4,000.
With respect to parenting disputes, he readily appoints Guardians ad Litem. He does not drink and is quick to order the parties to abstain from mind altering substances. And he doesn’t think parties need to allocate money for their teenage children’s cars or car insurance – teenagers can get jobs and pay for that stuff themselves.
3) The Honorable Lee B. Tinney
Background: Commissioner Tinney is the newest court commissioner in Snohomish County, having been appointed in 2014. Prior to joining the bench, she practiced for several decades as a family law attorney and mediator. Many local attorneys believe she was one of the best mediators for family law cases in the geographic area.
Personality: Though not mean, she’s no-nonsense.
Tendencies: Commissioner Tinney bears some similarity to Commissioner Gaer (see above). She reads the parties working copies thoroughly, takes copious notes, and usually has her mind mostly made before oral argument. Submit strong written materials. Oral argument isn’t terribly important for her – on oral you might want to simply ask whether she has any questions for you. She usually does.
With respect to spousal maintenance, Commissioner Tinney often looks more at need and ability than do the other commissioners. This typically results in lower maintenance awards from her.
As for parenting disputes, she’s reluctant to appoint a Guardian ad Litem. When formulating a parenting plan, she takes strong cues from what the parties have informally said and done. If the parties have followed an informal parenting arrangement since separation, she’ll almost always award a similar division of parenting time. Moreover, she seems to pay close attention to what the parties informally agreed upon or offered in their settlement discussions. This can create a perverse incentive for counsel to “unintentionally” submit settlement offers as evidence despite ER 408’s prohibition against doing so.
Perhaps because of her mediation background, Commissioner Tinney sometimes advises or orders the parties to mediate and return for a review hearing.
4) The Honorable Tracy G. Waggoner
Background: According to the grapevine, Commissioner Waggoner worked her way through school. This may be why she sometimes displays a less sympathetic attitude toward parties who aren’t working fulltime to earn their own keep.
Personality: Commissioner Waggoner’s temperament lies somewhere near the middle of the road.
Tendencies: She reads the parties written materials fairly closely and takes notes on them. She generally seems to know how she intends to decide a case before oral argument, but oral presentations still appear to influence her decision-making. She doesn’t display many marked predispositions that vary from Snohomish County’s norms.
5) The Honorable Jacalyn D. Brudvick
Background: Commissioner Brudvick has intimated she has a background involving marginalized children. This might cause her to pay closer attention to children’s special needs. She has also proudly stated in court she does not own a cell phone. So make no assumptions about her knowledge of cell phone functionality.
Personality: Her personality stands out, and some love it while others don’t. She’s “Minnesota nice”. This means she makes every effort to be kind. But it can be disconcerting when her smiling mouth speaks harsh words. Better to be mentally prepared for this than to be caught off guard and react defensively.
Tendencies: Commissioner Brudvick reads working copies, but oral argument still plays a role in her decision-making. During your oral presentation, be prepared to fully explain the most critical aspect of your argument. She appreciates clear oral argument. She even hands out Gold Elvis stickers when a party presents cogently in the ex parte hearing room (Department A) on the Fridays she’s on duty. Like Commissioner Waggoner, Commissioner Brudvick does not display clear propensities to rule differently on certain topics.
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