Background in family therapy grounds 2014 Aranda award
By Amy Yarbrough
Sue Alexander did not realize what she was getting herself
|Alexander - Photo by S. Todd Rogers
Deciding to apply for an open Alameda County court
commissioner slot, Alexander filed her paperwork just 15 minutes before the deadline.
Though she didn’t know it then, Alexander would have a gargantuan task in front
of her: executing the changes under Assembly Bill 1058, landmark 1997
legislation that transformed the way child support cases are handled in
As Alameda County’s first child support commissioner,
Alexander rose to that challenge and to many more after that, friends and
colleagues say, forging a track record that led to her selection as this year’s
recipient of the Benjamin
On Aug. 21, Alexander, 63, will be the first commissioner to
receive the award given by the State Bar, the Judicial Council, California
Judges Association and the California Commission on Access to Justice. It
recognizes judicial officers who have shown a long-term commitment to improving
access to the courts, particularly for the poor and those of moderate means.
Alexander said the award came as a complete surprise. She considers
it a testament to the good work done by commissioners across the state.
“I was shocked, first of all. I never considered they would
ever nominate a commissioner. It never occurred to me I was eligible,” she
said. “I was very surprised. I was doubly surprised when they said I got it.”
Sherry Peterson, a Dublin, Calif. family law attorney who
worked with Alexander to launch the Essentials Program, which helps train
attorneys in outlying areas in family law, made no secret of her excitement
upon learning Alexander was chosen.
“One of the things about Sue is she’s got the vision to see
the whole package, work with court staff,” she said. “So many people just see
this little window of what their job should be. She sees the whole picture.”
In addition to teaching numerous programs for groups
including the Center for Judicial Education and Research (CJER), Alexander has
been on far more committees than Peterson could name.
“How many people take that on for the number of years she
has and have a major effect?” Peterson said.
Alexander has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a
master’s in marriage, family and child counseling from San Jose State
University. A negative experience with a family law attorney while trying to
get referrals for her therapy practice helped to get her thinking about
becoming one herself.
Back in October 1997, Alexander arrived for the first day of
her job at Alameda County Superior Court to find a desk full of supplies and a
No program had been set up to implement AB 1058 in Alameda
County. Alexander and the two family law facilitators sat down to lunch and
said, “What do we do? What should it look like?” Alexander recalled.
“It wasn’t just walking into a job … it was making something
Before AB 1058 was passed, parents who paid child support
were disenfranchised from the system and from the district attorneys’ offices that
were tasked with collecting child support payments. Used to dealing with criminal
defendants, prosecutors tended to view parents who owed child support as
“deadbeat dads, whether they were or not,” Alexander said.
District attorneys’ offices were also able to go back three
full years from the filing of a complaint to collect child support, even though
the parent may have just learned they had a child.
The parents, on the other hand, “felt that they didn’t have
a right to say anything,” she said. “This set up a whole different dynamic.”
As a result of the law, a governmental agency can only begin
collecting from the time a child support complaint is filed. Collection of the
debts is now the responsibility of the Department of Child Support Services.
To help make the transition smoother, Alexander created a
working group of family law facilitators, whose job was to help unrepresented
litigants, and the district attorney’s office, which needed to consider the
obstacles parents faced paying child support. Also included in those
discussions was the private bar, to ensure litigants had meaningful access to
the courts and support.
“She would convene monthly meetings with court personnel,”
said Deborah Chase, a former family law facilitator who now works for the
Judicial Council. “She had the understanding we all had to work together no
matter what differences we had.”
Chase called Alexander “very conscientious and brilliant,”
noting her participation on numerous committees and task forces.
“She’s irrepressible, energy-wise,” she said.
During her time as a family law commissioner Alexander also
set up a system that allowed family law and child support cases to be heard by
the same judicial officer at the same time, making it easier on litigants and more
efficient for the court.
Alexander was a member of both the Elkins Task Force and the
Elkins Implementation Task Force, convened to improve efficiency and fairness
in family law proceedings, and drafted many of the task force’s final
recommendations. She currently serves as an advisory member on the Judicial
Alexander has also been involved extensively with CJER,
among other groups, developing workshops around ethics and issues with
self-represented litigants. She also developed bias training for new family law
judges during their orientation.
“No one was talking about institutional biases,” she
explained. “I realized I had a bias against home schooling.
“I had a case when a mother wanted home schooling, the
father did not. She had a great plan. I said, ‘I really can’t knee-jerk that
Alexander said she’s always been driven to find ways to make
the system better, something she attributes to her therapy background.
Alexander, who enjoys singing, hiking and
visiting state parks with her husband, Darrell Davis, Alexander was originally
drawn to computers, taking computer data programming at Chabot College in
Looking back, Alexander said she would have regretted choosing
computers over the work she’s done to help others.
“My mother always thought I should go into psychology,” she
said. “I had to bite the bullet and realize she was more right than I was.”