Our family court system handles thousands of cases every year, but has only a limited number of circuit and associate circuit judges. Consequently, the General Assembly some time ago authorized the appointment of family court commissioners to serve in the same capacity as a circuit or associate circuit judge – commissioners may hear any family law matter and all proceedings before the commissioner transpire as if before a circuit or associate circuit judge. However, a commissioner cannot independently enter judgment – under our statutes and rules, a circuit judge must review and sign off on any judgment by a commissioner, and the judgment will not become final until the judge signs off.
So, for example, if you file for divorce in St. Louis County, your case could on random assignment end up before a family court commissioner. Your case will proceed as if before a circuit or associate circuit judge, including if necessary a full trial on the merits. After the trial, the commissioner at some point will issue a recommended judgment. Automatically, the recommended judgment will be delivered to a circuit judge for review (usually judges divide the supervision of commissioners). The reviewing judge can sign off on the recommended judgment, making it a final judgment, amend the judgment or reject the judgment, in which case it must set a hearing de novo in front of the judge. In the vast majority of cases, the reviewing judge will approve and finalize the judgment.
When a party receives a final judgment from a circuit or associate circuit judge, the party may file a motion for new trial or motion to amend judgment within 30 days. After the court disposes of post-trial motions, if a party still feels the judgment is incorrect, the party has only one recourse at that point – to file a notice of appeal and seek review in the appellate court.
It works a bit differently before a commissioner because by rule and statute a party may ask that a judge rehear the case. After a judge signs off on the findings of the commissioner, a party has 15 days to seek rehearing in front of a judge. If the judge denies the motion for rehearing, the judgment is final and relief is only from the appellate court. If the judge grants the rehearing, the judge may review the file, hear arguments or even hear new evidence, and at the end will issue a new judgment. Any further review would require going to the court of appeals.
So, a case before a commissioner gives the parties a chance to have a new hearing before a judge rather than go immediately to the court of appeals. However, the rehearing is discretionary, not automatic.
Judges review the work of commissioners because they do not have the full authority of judges; they can do most of the work of judges but they cannot issue final judgment. They help reduce the workload of judges and maintain an efficient system of justice, but their work is subject to the review of a judge.
To sum up – if you have a case before a commissioner, you need not go immediately to the court of appeals if dissatisfied with the judgment; you can seek review before a judge of the family court, but that review is not guaranteed.
If you have additional questions about family court commissioners, contact us – we can help.