Bernadette D’Souza, who was elected to New Orleans’ first family court judgeship in 2012, emphasizes her experience and her track record on the bench as she runs for re-election.
Before the city designated a court for domestic cases, multiple judges might handle a single case at various times. “It was a revolving door for litigants and lawyers,” D’Souza said. “I inherited a huge domestic docket.”
D’Souza is particularly proud of the program she helped implement, along with two other judges, that requires mediation in child custody cases before they go to trial. Mediation allows people to work on disagreements and could help them come to an amicable solution instead of going to trial. That helps clear the docket.
“When parties come to an agreement themselves,” D’Souza said, “they abide by it more than when a judge passes down a ruling.”
Couples attend three mediation sessions at most. If it works, they submit a consent agreement to the court. If not, they go to trial.
The fee for these sessions is based on the couple’s income. For those who can’t afford to pay, D’Souza said she has worked with Southeastern Louisiana Legal Services to provide a mediator who will work for free. She practiced family law with the organization for 18 years.
If re-elected, D’Souza wants to expand her office’s community outreach. When she worked in legal aid, she would connect clients to a variety of services ranging from housing to counseling.
As an advisor to the City of New Orleans’ Domestic Violence Advisory Committee, D’Souza said now is the time to raise awareness about domestic violence because of recent scandals involving NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.
She wants to connect people who come to court with religious organizations that provide services such as parenting classes, domestic violence counseling and batterer’s intervention programs.
D’Souza collaborated with colleagues to create a self-help desk at Civil District Court. She estimated that 60 to 65 percent of people who appear before her don’t have a lawyer. The desk gives them access to court forms and petitions.
An attorney at the desk, working pro bono, explains the purpose of each form. Before volunteering, attorneys are trained on how to handle common questions that arise when people represent themselves.
D’Souza wants to work with legal service organizations to provide volunteer attorneys for people in domestic court. She said that would improve representation and lead to more efficient proceedings.