What are Family Court Referees?

There are two counties in Minnesota that use “referees” in family court.  These counties are Hennepin and Ramsey.  A referee is a judicial officer who has authority to make rulings in divorce cases.  A referee does not have the same level of authority as a judge.   Typically, orders issued by family referees are “recommendations” that a district court judge needs to approve.  In practice, district court judges tend to approve most, if not all, orders that are recommended by a referee.

The Minnesota court system began using family court referees sometime around 1980.  Family court referees are paid somewhat less than district court judges.  In Minnesota, a district court judge is paid $129,124.00 annually.  A family court referee is paid $116,197.00 annually.    So, using referees instead of judges represents only a moderate cost savings. to the court  Generally, judges are rotated on and off the family court bench every couple of years.  The available pool of judges in Hennepin County is quite large.  There are probably about 50 judges on the Hennepin County bench, so at any one time only a portion of them are sitting on the family court bench.  Family court referees stay on the family court bench during the entire time they are a family court referee.  Courts, like other institutions, tend to have institutional memories.  I suspect that having a core of judicial officers (family court referees) who stay on the family court bench their entire career makes for continuity in the family court division.

In Minnesota, the mandatory retirement age for judges is age 70.  This is established by statute.  There is no mandatory retirement age for referees.  In fact, once a chief judge asked a family court referee who was 70 to retire.  The referee challenged the request, the case went to court and to an appeal, and the appellate court confirmed that the referee was not required to retire at age 70.

In Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, cases are assigned to judicial officers (that is, to judges and referees) by a central assignment office.  In Hennepin County, there are approximately 8 or 9 judges on the family court bench, and approximately 5 referees.  In Ramsey County, there are approximately three judges on the family court bench and approximately 5 referees.  Whether your case is assigned to a referee or a judge should not make a big difference. to the outcome of your case.

Each party has the right to remove a judicial officer from their case, without cause.  However, a removal without cause can only be done if the judicial officer has not yet issued an order in the case, and it can only be done once.  However, if that party wants to remove a second judicial officer, the party has to affirmatively demonstrate that the judge is biased, or that there may be some other appropriate reason.

Daniel Fiskum is a Minnesota divorce attorney who has been practicing since 1992. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and has been named a "Super Lawyer" by the Minnesota Journal of Law and Politics. Mr. Fiskum is currently writing a book for attorneys and non-attorneys entitled "The Streetfighter's Guide to Divorce," which is scheduled for publication in May, 2010. Many of his blog entries will appear in the book. You may contact attorney Fiskum directly at (952) 270-7700. His office is located in the Carlson Towers in Minnetonka, Minnesota. The Fiskum Law website is found at www.fiskumlaw.com.

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