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Indio Family Court Comm. Gregory Olson | Riverside County Family Law Judges

This is reprinted from an interview for the March, 2013 Desert Bar Associations monthly Family Law Section newsletter. The link to the issue itself is at the bottom of the page.


FLS COMMUNITY SPOTLIGHT

RIVERSIDE COUNTY COMMISSIONER GREGORY J. OLSON:

“I Have the Greatest Job In the World!”

By T.W. Arnold

In any discussion with Greg Olson about his work as a Family Court Commissioner, two attributes become immediately apparent: His graciousness and dedication to public service. One might assume he finds his job to be difficult, but he doesn’t see it that way. He told me with a grin that “I have the greatest job in the world."

This generosity of spirit was demonstrated by his willingness to open up for an interview for the FLS, especially considering that he is generally a fairly private person outside the halls of the Larson Justice Center. Because he has been working for the County of Riverside in one capacity or another since graduating law school in 1988, there is almost no information available about him on the Internet – which one would expect since he has never been in private practice, and he likely considers that anonymity to be a good thing. In February, 2007, the Daily Journal published a “Judicial Profile” that is noteworthy in part because nothing about Olson’s attitudes seems to have changed in the intervening six years. Well-grounded and even-mannered, Comm. Olson is clearly comfortable with his responsibilities and confident in his style of judging. What you see is what you get! And, it isn’t likely to change much.

Comm. Olson’s undergraduate studies were done at Seattle University, an institution deeply grounded in a 450 year old Jesuit educational discipline. Our newest Pontiff, Pope Francis, hails from that tradition. Olson next attended the University of San Diego School of Law. While a student he never expected to become involved with family law, taking a single course on domestic relations. (Come to think of it, so did I – probably this is true of you as well; as David Byrne might sing, ‘How did we get here?’). Before graduating he briefly clerked for a civil law firm, but found that working inside an office for a law firm was “boring”. What really grabbed his attention was a summer stint during his second year clerking for the Riverside County Public Defender’s Office, and from that point on he knew what he was going to do.

Commissioner Olson became licensed as an attorney in 1990, and was thrilled to be offered full-time employment at the PD’s office. He was quickly seduced by the “nitty gritty” world of the criminal defense lawyer, and became passionately fascinated about anything involving trials, and especially the cross-examination and closing argument phases of his cases. “Those are the two things that I miss about not being a lawyer,” he told me.

As a public defender he handled everything from minor misdemeanors to rapes, child molestations, and murders. He defended some 35 to 40 criminal defendants before Indio juries. He continued that work as a trial attorney for fifteen years, until he decided to become a Court Commissioner.

As he somewhat wistfully admits now that he sits on the opposite side of the table, after 15 years he was “ready for a change” - of sorts. After all, in his role as a bench officer he still does trial work but now he gets to sustain his own objections!

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As with any newly appointed judge or court commissioner, when Olson became a bench officer he had little choice as to his assignments. If he was ever reluctant to embrace any of these, he gives no hint of it – another sure thing about Comm. Olson is that he takes in stride whatever comes his way (and given his height, these are big steps). “I’m here to help the court,” he says. “I’m here to help the community, and whatever they asked me to do I would say ‘yes’”.

He began his life as a Court Commissioner managing the Small Claims Department. Soon after that he was assigned to the misdemeanor pre-trial calendar, which included responsibility for arraignments and preliminary hearings, and deciding pre-trial motions. He filled that role for six years, until he was re-assigned to Family Court effective January 1 of last year.

His Small Claims experience turned out to be excellent preparation for family court disputes, because those litigants also had highly emotional attachments to their money. Some of the best advice he got as a newly minted judicial officer was never to rule from the bench in those cases because the parties’ fighting would surely re-erupt in earnest. He tested it in his first trial and “immediately they started fighting again, and I thought, wow, it’s true.” Of course, he observes, in Small Claims there is usually a clear winner and loser. “In family law it is not about winning or losing, ultimately,” he notes. In custody contests his focus is on the best interests of children. When adjudicating property and spousal support issues, he is steered by principles of equity and fairness, and the parties’ needs and abilities to pay.

He believes strongly that people should settle their cases, but realizes that if many of those who appear before him could do that on their own, they already would have. He stubbornly reminds litigants that they can and should settle their matters between themselves. But he is realistic: By the time many people find themselves in his courtroom, “most are tired and they just want somebody to make a decision.” He doesn’t shrink from imposing the finality that they seek, if they cannot figure their way out on their own.

Olson finds family law “very interesting” but “very emotional.” His approach towards this familiar aspect of the family court experience is that “you let people vent a little bit, then you have to say – hey – we’ve got to move on. I try to listen, but a lot of it isn’t productive because [the parties sometimes] just want to get back at the other person. I understand this, but it doesn’t really help. It really doesn’t sway me either.” People who are convinced that they are the “good spouse,” and that the other is the “bad spouse,” aren’t likely to gain much traction before this Commissioner. He confesses that some afternoons he becomes pretty worn out with the back and forth.

One of the ways that he deals with high emotions is to demonstrate for the parties that he has read their declarations – he is a meticulous file reader – by summarizing some of what the disputants have written or, for instance, expressed to a Child Custody Recommending Counselor. “I tell them that this is what I’ve read, and I kind of give it back to them.” Those who’ve sat in his courtroom have heard him reassure self-represented parties that “I’ve read your file and you don’t need to tell me again.” This is one way that his intuitive style of ‘empathetic listening’ positively impacts disputants in his department.

Judge Dale Wells remarked,

"Commissioner Olson has an exemplary judicial demeanor – he never loses his cool, no matter what the provocation. But more than that, he has the kind of practical common sense that family law litigants need.

When they are out of control, he stays in control and issues down-to-earth orders that are in the best interest of the litigants and, more important, their children. Family law litigants are likely to hear these ‘Olsonisms’ when they are acting out: ‘Your kid is the best thing you’ll ever do in life,’ or ‘This is the mother/father of the greatest thing you’ll ever do, and you need to respect her/him.’ And when the parents just can’t help pushing each other’s buttons by using their children to send their hateful messages to each other, he might say something like, ‘Now don’t pin a note to his/her blankie.’”

Most days he is one of the first bench officers to arrive at the Larson Justice Center. Often, but not always, he beats Judge Wells. He regularly puts in a nine hour day. He generally doesn’t work from home, though he can access court files on line – he is more efficient getting his work done at the courthouse, and he has a healthy boundary that ‘work is for work’ and ‘home is about family.’ “I really like to separate the two,” he said. Still, he admits he slips into the courthouse some weekends when “it’s quiet.”

In terms of preparing for his cases, Comm. Olson normally starts his file review the day before the hearing. He prefers to sleep on the more vexing problems, and to let what he reads settle in. He will prep on his breaks, and especially during afternoons when he doesn’t have a trial. Often he reviews the file for a second or third time the day of the hearing. This is when his understanding and views about the dispute become “solid.”

Don’t be surprised if Olson asks questions of the witnesses. He sees this as one of his functions as a fact-finder, in order to get the information he needs to make reasoned decisions based upon the law. Sometimes “I’m going to ask a question if it hasn’t been asked, because I need to know the answer.”

Even though he has never experienced the financial realities of maintaining a divorce related practice, he is not insensitive towards the family lawyers who appear before him on fee applications. He said “It’s always important to give me your personal statement, to break it down and tell me where you are coming from.” He wants specifics, not because he is particularly a detail kind of guy - he claims he isn’t (but Olson sure does pay attention to things). He is more likely to be persuaded by the Big Picture, and you would benefit by giving him the basis for why he should do what you believe he should on fee requests, or on any other issue.

Once in a while he is a bit shocked by the child and temporary spousal support numbers that the Xspouse kicks out. “Sometimes the amount seems crazy one way or the other, but that’s the way of it although of course sometimes I can deviate from [guideline support] and sometimes I do that.” Other times “I have no authority” to ignore what the law presumes to be correct. “I look at the facts in front of me. I really do look at it all case to case.”

He does not strictly enforce former Rule of Court 5.118 (now CRC 5.111), with its ten page limit on requests for orders and responsive declarations. He may not be thrilled to receive a document that is 45 pages in length, but he will scan it and closely read what catches his attention. “I read what they give me. However, if I look at a document that is 45 pages long I take a deep breath before I start it. It’s hard, scrolling 45 pages but I do think it needs to be done because I want to know what the questions are and what is in those documents, because we are not going to put the matter over – we are going to decide it today!” Indeed, for Olson “the more information I get, the better, especially when dealing with financial matters.” He wants to see the “real” numbers, and the backup for things like the expenses, for instance, that a party claims on page 3 of their FL-150. He gives weight to tax returns, check stubs, and bills but as to some items he doesn’t require an entire document. The first page of rental agreement may suffice rather than the entire lease.

He rarely takes short cause matters under submission, unless he needs more information. For long trials or particularly complex disputes, he will sometimes allow the matters to be submitted. He prefers to rule from the bench. He rarely requests closing briefs, unless time constraints justify it. He asks that lawyers and self-represented parties submit the reported cases that they think are important for him to consider.

In preparing for his role as Family Court Commissioner, he relied and continues to rely extensively on Judge’s Wells input and feedback. Some of you may recall that in late 2011 a lanky stranger might slip into Judge Well’s courtroom to sit in the jury box and watch portions of the afternoon trials. Olson describes Wells as “an invaluable resource,” conveying that he would have been a bit lost without Dale’s help. Because Judicial College was scheduled to begin after he was to take the Bench, he read Hogoboom & King’s California Family Law Practice Guide from end to end in order to come up to speed in time for his debut.

From Judge Well’s perspective, Commissioner Olson has exceeded all expectations. Wells candidly stated that

“When Judge [Sherrill] Ellsworth moved Commissioner Greg Olson from the misdemeanor arraignments calendar to family law in January, 2012 I will admit that I had my reservations. For the past nine years, we had an experienced family law commissioner in Mike McCoy. Commissioner McCoy had run a smooth calendar in Department 2E, and he had provided a tremendous service to the family law litigants – and to the community at large. What could a commissioner who had never practiced family law, either as an attorney or as a bench officer, bring to a family law calendar? Surely, nothing good could come from such an assignment!

One year later, I’m happy to know that all my fears and apprehensions were misplaced. The very qualities that made Commissioner Olson excel in every assignment he has had as a bench officer have served him well as he has made the 2E calendar his very own smooth-running machine.

In short, Commissioner Olson is a star! It doesn’t matter what assignment he is given, he will always be a star! But I, for one, am glad that his star is shining right now in Department 2E.”

I think Judge Wells is exactly right. Olson is a career judge and he is going to be serving the public for a long time. I suspect we will increasingly see Commissioner’s Olson’s fingerprints on various improvements in the local courts’ administration of justice. He expects he will continue in his present assignment for another two to three years. He is happy about that, since historically he knew only the criminal side of the courthouse and he enjoys getting to know and interact with all the other sections of the Bar.

Not only are we family law practitioners most fortunate to have such a smart and enthusiastic bench officer to help us through what can be at times a miserable grind, the real beneficiaries are the members of the public who come to Commissioner Olson for clarity, direction and justice.

This is a task is he is well-suited for, since Olson is not only intensely driven, he is the consummate family man. He works out at least five days a week, often running with his wife of nineteen years, usually after first hitting the gym. She is a third grade school teacher. Together they have a 17 year old daughter whom Olson clearly adores. She is leaving this coming Fall to begin college. His eyes sparkle when he speaks about their child. “She is just the greatest thing in the world,” he declares. And without meeting her, you just know that this must be true. If his daughter wants to become a lawyer, his feeling is ‘so be it.’ He takes no credit for her achievements, demurring instead that he and her mother “didn’t do anything, we just got lucky.” One doubts that it is that simple.

It is so critical that attorneys and family court litigants have bench officers who love their work, and who will do all that it takes to move our difficult family law cases to conclusion with poise and compassion. We all have met those judges who do not – particularly in other venues, and we know what that looks like. Now that we’ve had the opportunity to watch Commissioner Greg Olson in action for a little more than a year, we are assured that we have two family law judges, for now, who strive for impeccability.

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Thurman W. Arnold, III, CFLS

Reprinted from the March, 2013 FLS Newsletter

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