Judges May Not Enter Final Judgment and Defer Their Opinions and Reasons Until Later

Ducey v. Ducey, 424 N.J. Super. 80 (App. Div. 2012).  After a fourteen-day trial, a Family Part judge entered a judgment of divorce and stated that “the underlying opinion will be sent shortly.”  Not until three months later did the judge forward her opinion.  The “substantive provisions” of that eventual opinion “diverged dramatically” from the judgment of divorce, and the judge directed counsel to prepare a new judgment of divorce.  Both sides appealed, and the Appellate Division, speaking through Judge Lihotz, condemned in the strongest terms what the Family Part judge did.

“In matrimonial matters, judges should enter final judgments accompanied by the underlying factual findings and reasoning.”  Entering a judgment while deferring a reasoned opinion deviates from “fundamental due process at the expense of litigants, who must comply as ordered without benefit of the basis of the trial court’s determinations.  Such a practice perverts a trial judge’s primary obligation to make factual findings to support all legal conclusions,” as required by Rule 1:7-4.

The Family Part judge also did not endear herself to the Appellate Division when, in asking the parties to prepare a revised judgment of divorce, she requested that the new judgment include “the standard terms for the termination of alimony” and “the standard language regarding emancipation, cohabitation, etc.”  Judge Lihotz observed that the panel was “unaware of any authority that defines ‘standard language’ for these issues.”  She emphasized that “absent a stipulation from the parties, the trial judge must decide all collateral issues, including the incidental details associated with each issue.

The panel reversed the decision of the Family Part and remanded for a new trial before a different judge.  Ouch!