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!
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
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
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.
Thurman W. Arnold, III, CFLS
Reprinted from the March, 2013 FLS Newsletter