You'll benefit by understanding the terminology used in court, the jobs of the people you'll come in contact with, and some of the procedures that you must follow when filing for divorce. Most of all, you should know different judges have different opinions and the resolution of your divorce can vary depending who renders the final judgment.
Judicial officers are judgelike people that courts hire to help judges handle the caseload. They're called different names in different jurisdictions, although the most common names are referee, commissioner, magistrate, and hearing examiner. They hear cases and issue orders just like judges. Sometimes their orders have to be countersigned by a “real” judge but not always. If the order doesn't have to be countersigned, you can appeal the decision to the judge who oversees their work.
If you want to contest a court order, you may not get the same judge and might have to start all over again. Whether you get the same judge varies from state to state and county to county. Some courts have a special family court, and once your case is filed it stays with the same judge or judicial officer.
While judicial officers are a step lower on the power ladder, they're usually very capable and knowledgeable. Many are retired judges or lawyers who have practiced in the field for years. Most of them have had lots of experience in family court and really know the law.
Notice to Remove
When a case is filed with the court, the court administrator working in family court will assign the case to a judge. You or your lawyer may be unhappy about the assignment based on past experiences or things you have heard about the judge. In some cases, your lawyer may suggest that you try to have the case assigned to a different judge. This is not a decision your lawyer makes lightly, because there are often repercussions to the lawyer if the judge is insulted by the request. Therefore, you should accept your lawyer's recommendation, knowing that your lawyer is willing to risk the downside of the judge's reaction in order to get a better result for your case.
What if you are assigned a judge and he makes a decision you think is unfair?
It still doesn't matter. If this happens to you, you can only appeal the judge's decision, not ask for a different judge. Laws provide certain reasons for seeking to remove a judge, but they are limited. Check with your lawyer to see what your state allows.
Jurisdictions vary in terms of your ability to request another judge. In some states, you have one chance to say you want another judge to hear your case. You don't have to give any reasons, but you do have to exercise this right quickly, usually within ten days of getting notice of a judge's assignment. In most systems this is called a Notice to Remove. The other side gets one free shot, too. Of course, when you remove the judge assigned to your case, you may get another who is just as worrisome, given the facts of your case.
If you don't use the Notice to Remove and at some later time you want a different judge — for instance, after you get your first order from the judge — you will have to exercise a Removal for Cause to show that the judge assigned to your case has shown actual bias toward you or your spouse. This is very hard to do, especially because the judge you're trying to get rid of is usually the one who will hear your motion to remove for cause.
The Judges' Reputations
Judges develop reputations for delivering certain kinds of opinions most of the time. Some seem to award high alimony/maintenance. Some always give children to their mothers. Some are pretty wishy-washy about enforcing orders. Some are not good listeners. Some make decisions based on what happened to them in their divorces.
Lawyers talk with each other about judges, and they know the reputations of the judges in their courts. Your lawyer will advise you about a judge and whether it's worth trying to get a different one. While you should make the final decision, you probably will have to rely on your lawyer's advice pretty heavily. A judge with a known bias who also has a reputation for fairness and for listening to the facts may be persuaded to abandon his bias in a specific case — maybe yours. Only your lawyer can tell you the risks and options here.