Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Helgestad v. Vargas (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 18, 2014)

Sometimes I lean towards not talking about opinions by a particular author because I don't want to sound like a homer.  You don't need me saying five dozen times that this justice writes especially well because, well, it's self-evident. And I've already said it two dozen times, so why beat an eloquent horse?

Nonetheless, for people like me, one great thing about Court of Appeal opinions is that they retain mystery longer than some other courts.  In the Ninth Circuit, for example, you see the author of the opinion right off the bat, immediately below the caption.  But in the Court of Appeal, you have to wait until the end -- or flip forward (if you can't stand the suspense) -- to see who you're reading.

I mention this only because sometimes, the writing is so clear and cogent and of a particular style that you don't have to guess.  Not because it's full of Kozinskisms or the like.  (Though those are fun too).  But rather because, as you're reading, you're simply thinking:  "I wish I could write like that."

This is one of those opinions.

Admittedly, the first sentence of the opinion demonstrates a writing style that's somewhat idiosyncratic, so that sort of gives it away.  But notice how the first three paragraphs of this opinion so clearly tell you, in a very concise manner, not only what the case is about, but where it's going and why.  It reads:

"Family law is not getting any easier. Consider this scenario: A couple live together and have two children. They do not marry. Then they separate. The couple agree to a paternity action judgment which establishes the father’s paternity, his right to visitation, and fixes a monthly monetary child support payment to be made to the mother who will have primary physical custody of the children. Later the couple attempt a reconciliation; the father moves into the residence of the children and the mother. After about nine months, the reconciliation fails, and the father moves out. Issue: Can the father obtain any credit for actual, in-the-home child support he afforded the children during the nine months he lived with them and the mother?

The question is one of first impression in California. (See Wright, Right to Credit on Child Support Arrearages for Time Parties Resided Together After Separation or Divorce (2002) 104 A.L.R.5th 605, 610-612 [absence of California cases] (hereinafter “ALR Annot., Credit for Time Resided”.) Had the original order been made in a marital – as distinct from paternity – action, and had the couple simply switched custody so that the children went to live with the father instead of attempting reconciliation, there seems to be no question that a line of California cases beginning with Jackson v. Jackson (1975) 51 Cal.App.3d 363 would allow such credit. In fact, family law has developed a shorthand term for credits. They’re called “Jackson credits,” after the first case to allow for them. But whether the same rules obtain in a paternity action as in a dissolution action has not previously been addressed.

The trial court concluded the father here, appellant George Vargas, was not eligible for any such Jackson credits, because this case did not fit the Jackson pattern of a child support order which originated in a divorce proceeding, and also because there wasn’t a total reversal of custody, but rather a period of cohabitation – shared custody – in the context of an attempted reconciliation. We reverse because we believe the same equitable considerations that apply to support orders arising out of marital cases should
also apply to support orders arising out of paternity cases. We see no reason to differentiate total changes of custody from periods of living together in the same household; actual support is actual support."

You can read the next twenty pages if you like.  But after that introduction, if you want, you can stop, and still know volumes about what the author's saying.

That's the very definition of a good introduction.

The author is Justice Bedsworth, of course.  You'd figure that out soon enough by the writing style -- or the multiple nine-point discursive footnotes (another trademark) -- if you hadn't already by the nature of the introduction.

Wholly apart from the writing style, which is outstanding, I've got a strong sense that this one's going to be memorable on the merits.  Indeed, I think it has generated a new legal term.  I'm just trying to figure out if, in the future, we're going to call them "Helgestad" credits or "Vargas" credits.

My money's on the latter.  Technically, because Vargas was the father and is the one getting the credits.  But realistically simply because his name is easier to pronounce.

Another incredibly well-crafted and -written opinion by Justice Bedsworth.  Which I imagine will get a new shorthand name in family law circles within the week.