Judge Reminds Attorneys the First Amendment Applies in Family Court, Then Fires Minors Counsel

Julie Haskell at the Santa Clara County Family Courthouse October 6, 2023 after obtaining court records related to attorneys working as minors counsel (photo by Susan Bassi)

By Susan Bassi and Fred Johnson

In an unusual move, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Ayana Young  sternly reminded divorce attorneys Dante Miranda and Alice Cheng that court proceedings are public and litigants have the right to speak to the press.  Then Judge Young terminated, essentially fired, minors counsel Alice Cheng, from a contentious divorce case where she had been appointed to represent a 17-year-old. Miranda represents the child’s mother.

Wednesday’s hearing was set at the request of a self-represented father who sought to remove a court appointed attorney from his daughter’s life. The father, who had been denied care, custody and control of his daughter largely by the child’s mother and her attorneys over the course of a ten-year divorce, requested Judge Young fire Ms. Cheng after learning Cheng and the child’s mother denied him access to the child’s medical records relating to a mental health crisis that unfolded shortly after Cheng’s May 2023 appointment.

In addition to claiming Cheng had only acted to incite the conflict and further harm his child’s mental health, the father alleged the appointment was retaliatory and an effort to get him to pay Cheng’s seemingly needless and unconscionable fees.

A contract between Contra County Superior Court and the Contra Costa County local bar association, obtained through a public records request made by the Davis Vanguard,  and used by the father at the hearing,  show a two-tiered system relating to fees paid when judges appoint attorneys to represent children in connection with their parents’ divorce or custody case.

According to the contract, children from low-income families are limited to minimal representation, at a reduced rate limited to $125/hr.  and a single court appearance with a maximum payment for any child not to exceed $2,500. The county’s total budget for the representation of these children is $20,000 per year.

Alternatively, middle-class and high asset families can be ordered to pay for minors counsel directly. In these private pay cases lawyers, including Cheng, bill parents up to $500/ hr., with no limit on the total fees the lawyers may charge. Privately paid minors counsel can ask for retainers, remain in cases for years, attend multiple hearings and charge parents to read all communications generated in the divorce.

The chart placed in the legal pleadings before Judge Young shows how attorneys appointed as minors counsel in Contra Costa County are paid publicly for low-income families or privately by middle-class and high asset families.

A single privately paid minors counsel case can generate legal fees for one attorney in excess of the entire budget set for all low-income children in Contra Costa County.  Private pay cases siphon assets from families and children that could otherwise be used for higher education, vocational training, mental health services, or simply for the transfer of generational wealth.

Cheng, who had only provided legal services for four months, presented a bill for $12,000, requesting the court order it paid by the father.  Extrapolating that bill over the course of a year would be $36,000.

Public records obtained from the court show minors counsel appointments contracted through Jody Irons, Executive Director of the Contra Costa County bar, have a $20,000 cap for all low-income families in need of attorneys for children whose parents are involved in a divorce or custody dispute.

Cheng, who leads the county’s minors counsel panel, fiercely opposed being fired from her lucrative assignment.  In opposition to father’s request, Cheng and the mother’s counsel alleged the father had leaked records to the media, while hysterically claiming the child’s medical records had been put “all over the internet.” Cheng and Miranda offered no actual evidence to support their allegations.

Interestingly, Dante Miranda, the mother’s attorney, is the previous law partner of the mother’s longtime boyfriend, Brian Chase. Now a court commissioner in Kings County, Chase is reportedly under investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) for allegedly misusing his court email account and for placing father’s photo with court security along with a request that the father be denied entrance to a public courthouse.

Remote Access Allows Public to Observe Family Court Proceedings   

Julie Haskell, a trained and experienced volunteer court watcher who observed the hearing remotely with a group of interns, stated, “Judge Young eloquently reminded Ms. Cheng, the child’s mother, and Dante Miranda, that the father had every right to speak to the press and that the family court proceedings were open to the public. Judge Young’s words were not missed by those observing the proceedings, many of whom are aspiring attorneys and journalists.”

When asked to reflect on Judge Young’s comments in connection with the family court hearing, Haskell added, “It was a good day for access and transparency where our family courts are concerned. It was a great day for public trust in journalism and judges.”

The Vanguard’s requests to Cheng for comment about the hearing and her billing practices were ignored. Similarly, calls to the local bar’s Executive Director, Jody Irons, seeking comment about the minors counsel contract Irons signed with the court, have not been returned.

Minors Counsel Arthur Lin sponsored a table for the Santa Clara County Bar Association Holiday Party on December 2, 2016. (Photo by Stephen James)

Judges Hire, Fire and Decide How Much Attorneys Will Profit from Minors Counsel Appointments 

Unlike privately retained divorce attorneys, lawyers appointed by a judge as minors counsel must apply to the court for payment of their fees. Many familiar with these cases view minors counsel as being paid disproportionately compared to the benefit, if any, received by  child clients.

The State Bar Act, the law governing attorney actions, at Bus. & Prof. Code Section 6068 states that attorneys are “never to reject, for any consideration, personal to himself or herself, the cause of the defenseless or the oppressed.”  Leading to the question why minors counsel should be paid so much by parents in a divorce case.

In a Santa Clara County custody case linked to a federal class action lawsuit, Arthur Lin charged one mom over $60,000 for fees as a minors counsel, as recently reported. Following that reporting, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Jessica Delgado reduced Lin’s fees from $425 per hour on the private pay rate to $100 per hour. Lin’s bills will now be paid by taxpayers.

An attorney familiar with the case who wished to remain off record, noted, “Judge Delgado properly shifted the payment burden from the child’s mother to taxpayers.”

Irregularities in billings and fees charged by minors counsel continue to be investigated by this news outlet.

Remote Access to Public Court Hearings

Remote access to family court hearings allows lawyers, litigants, advocates, interns, and members of the public to observe court proceedings without incurring any additional expense traveling to a distant courthouse. Remote access also allows journalists to cover these important hearings in order to provide information to the public about the state’s legal system.

In providing remote access, Contra Costa Superior Court assured the Vanguard was able to report on how Judge Young, a relatively new judge, demonstrated a willingness to keep the attorneys appointed in divorce cases compliant with the law and rules that govern the legal profession.

Additionally, through the use of remote access, Judge Young educated experienced divorce attorneys, and interns alike, as to how the First Amendment applies to parents and their children in family court.

The Davis Vanguard is committed to reporting on family court related issues.  It is our policy to not use the names of litigants, or their children, despite the names being easily found in public dockets and court records. Exceptions may be made when newsworthy or a matter of public safety.  To support reporting that seeks to expose wrongdoing in the local government and legal system, please subscribe and donate to the Vanguard’s family court watch and related reporting. For tips, or other donations, please email or send C/O Susan Bassi, PO Box 2220, Los Gatos, CA 95031.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Nikki Lewis

    This needs to be disclosed!! I have a very similar case with a Minor’s Counsel. This is happening EVERYWHERE! This has to stop! Minor’s counsel does not have strict guidelines and they act on behalf of the judge, this is not okay! I am witnessing this firsthand! They do not do what is in the best interest of the child and purposely rack up the costs for their own personal desires. Thank you for this article!

  2. Thygesen_v_Wang

    Wonderful!!! and Beautiful. And they are Damn right, we are and will always be allowed to talk about our cases to Journalists! https://casetext.com/case/gilbert-v-national-enquirer-inc-1Gilbert v. National Enquirer, Inc., 43 Cal.App.4th 1135, 1138 (Cal. Ct. App. 1996) (“In this appeal involving a defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit brought by a well-known actress against her ex-husband and the National Enquirer, Inc., we reverse the preliminary injunction restraining the ex-husband from disclosing his allegedly defamatory statements regarding the plaintiff’s sexual relationships and substance abuse.”)

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