What Is A Commissioner or Judge Pro Tem?

You may have heard the terms “Judge Pro Tem” or “Commissioner Pro Tem” in the context of family law cases. Like many legal terms, these words are perhaps made more obscure by the use of latin. However, you do not need to be alarmed – it is not nearly as complicated as it sounds. A Seattle family law attorney can walk you through what the involvement of a judge pro tem or commissioner pro tem means for your case. 

What is the Difference Between a Judge and a Court Commissioner? 

First, a brief explanation – understanding the differences between judges and court commissioners will help you better understand the difference between a judge pro tem and a commissioner pro tem. To start, judges are elected positions, while court commissioners are appointed or hired by the courts to take on some limited judicial functions (like hearing family law motions) to free the judges up for trial work. Court commissioners must be licensed attorneys. Judges preside over your case and, due to the heavy volume of cases in trial work, having a commissioner to assist in certain aspects of their caseload allows them to better focus on their trials.

So What Does “Pro Tem” Mean?

“Pro tem” is simply an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “pro tempore,” literally “for the time being.” A judge or court commissioner pro tempore is more commonly referred to as a judge or court commissioner “pro tem,” meaning that they are only temporarily appointed.  

Pro tems are people who fill in for judges or court commissioners when the regular judge or court commissioner is out, such as when they are on vacation or sick. This allows cases to continue moving forward without unexpected or unforeseen delays. 

Who May Serve as a Judge or Court Commissioner Pro Tem?

A judge pro tem may be a judge from another court, a retired judge, or a practicing attorney. Attorneys who serve as judges pro tem have already been qualified by the jurisdiction in which they serve. 

Court commissioners pro tem are generally drawn from a pool of available attorneys who have applied to serve as court commissioners pro tem. The qualifications may vary by jurisdiction, such as how many years they have been in practice. 

Can You Object to Your Case Being Heard by a Judge or Court Commissioner Pro Tem?

Having your case heard by a judge or court commissioner pro tem can cause some anxiety for the parties involved in a family law issue. That said, it is important to remember that judges and court commissioners pro tem typically have experience in handling a wide variety of family law matters. Attorneys who serve in these roles are often experienced practitioners with expansive knowledge of family law. That said, there are times when you would prefer that the case be heard by the original judge or commissioner or by someone other than the judge or commissioner who has been appointed pro tem. 

The parties do not have the right to object to their case being heard by a judge pro tem if they are a retired judge or a judge from another court. However, if the judge pro tempore is not a current or retired Judge (i.e. is a regular practicing attorney), the parties must agree to use the pro tem, meaning they have the right to not have the pro tem hear their case. This may cause delays in the outcome of your case. 

The situation is different when you are dealing with a court commissioner pro tem. Because court commissioners are not elected, there is not the same right to refuse to have your case heard by a court commissioner pro tem if they are a practicing attorney. Instead, there is a right to have decisions made by any court commissioner (pro tem or not) reviewed by a sitting judge if you disagree with the commissioner pro tem’s ruling. This is done through a Motion for Revision, which must be filed within 10 days of the entry of the commissioner pro tem’s order

Contact a Family Law Attorney for Guidance

Having a judge or commissioner pro tem appointed to your case can be disorienting and it can be difficult to know how it may affect the outcome. If you have questions and need help, you can contact Seattle Divorce Services by calling 206-784-3049 to discuss your case and your options.

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