When one files a divorce case, the clerk of the court randomly assigns the case to a presiding judge. The presiding judge serves various roles during the divorce.
First the judge oversees the progress of the case. The judge makes sure that the lawyers are taking steps to move things forward. The Supreme Court's rules require the parties to promptly work out all parenting issues. The judge ensures compliance with that rule. The judge may order the parties to attend mediation or appoint a guardian ad litem. The guardian's role is to investigate each parent’s claims about the other and to suggest beneficial arrangements for the children. The guardian will report to the trial judge, to help the judge determine how to help resolve the dispute.
As part of the judge's role as case manager, the judge will insist on periodic court dates for the lawyers to provide case updates. At those "status hearings," the Judge will request information about whether the parties are negotiating or if there is a stalemate. The attorneys may also request the judge's input on other matters at that time. The judge will schedule follow up dates to track the case. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the judge will schedule the case for trial. At the trial the same judge who oversaw the case will hear the evidence and decide the contested issues. As the vast majority of all cases settle, it is rare that the judge presides over a divorce trial.
The presiding judge must also resolve interim or temporary issues. Those issues include temporary financial or parenting disputes. Also, under court rules, both parties need to exchange financial and other information. The judge may need to resolve disagreements about compliance as well. When an attorney asks the judge resolve an interim dispute, it is called a "motion" or a "petition." Motions or petitions are ordinarily in writing, and scheduled on the judge's calendar by the clerk of the court. The opposing party usually has an opportunity to file a written response to the motion. When there are emergency matters, judges relax the formal rules to resolve things more quickly.
If the parties and their attorneys cannot work out the disputed issues, the attorneys will either argue the matter in court or meet with the judge in his or her chambers to discuss the dispute. In advance, the attorneys will give the judge copies of the motions, case law, and other documents supporting their arguments. The judge will do one of three things: enter an order either granting or denying the motion, request an extended hearing to hear formal evidence, or defer the issue until a later date.
One of the most helpful aspects of the judge's involvement is during the settlement negotiations. Most parties can work out most of the issues on their own. Sometimes however they reach a stalemate on one or two matters. In that event, the attorneys will ask the judge to make recommendations at a pretrial conference. Before the conference, the attorney's will provide a memorandum summarizing the important facts and his or her client's position. The judge will tell how he or she would likely rule if the parties cannot settle and the judge tries the case. This input is very helpful in getting the case settled. If one knows how the judge is likely to rule in advance, it is often futile or unproductive to take the matter to trial. While sometimes issues need to go to trial for certain reasons, parties can resolve most issues with the help of the judge at the pretrial.
If the parties do reach an agreement, the judge will need to approve the agreement. If the judge feels an agreement is improper or grossly unfair, the judge will reject the agreement and the parties will need to keep negotiating. This rarely happens. Judges approve the vast majority of all agreements.
There is an old saying that it is better to know the judge than the law. Cynically, one might interpret this as meaning the judge can be swayed by a prior relationship. More legitimately, however, this saying reflects the benefits of knowing the judge's temperament, tolerance for certain arguments, likes or dislikes, etc. By knowing the judge's proclivities, the lawyer can better advise his or her client and resolve cases more advantageously.