Compared to the rest of Massachusetts, Cape Cod is a big place. Stretching more than 60 miles from the Sagamore Bridge to Provincetown, all of Cape Cod is contained in Barnstable County; meaning that all of Cape Cod’s divorce, child custody, and family law cases are heard in a single courthouse: the Barnstable County Probate and Family Court located in picturesque Barnstable Village on Route 6A.
For those who grew up on Cape Cod, the peninsula’s strange geography is taken for granted. “I grew up in West Barnstable, a village that is located in the town of Barnstable, which itself is located in Barnstable County,” says Jason Owens, an attorney at Lynch & Owens who was born and raised on Cape Cod. “A Cape kid learns early on that everything fits in Barnstable County.”
The Cape’s strange geography creates some unusual dynamics when it comes to selecting a family law attorney, however. “It wasn’t until I became a lawyer and was assigned as a judicial clerk in Barnstable County that I noticed how unusual it was for people to drive almost 60 miles to get to their local courthouse,” says Owens. “It seemed like all of the divorce lawyers, court staff, and Probate and Family Court judges are concentrated in the same little village on Route 6A.”
Two Judges to Rule Them All: The Barnstable Probate Court
The Barnstable County Probate and Family Court has just two judges. For the last decade, these judges have been Hon. Robert A. Scandurra and Hon. Arthur C. Ryley, two former Cape attorneys who were appointed to the bench by former governors William Weld and Deval Patrick in 1994 and 2008, respectively. For the last ten years, Scandurra and Ryley have been the only game in town for Cape residents with divorce or custody cases.
In mid-July 2018, Judge Scandurra will reach mandatory retirement age for Massachusetts judges (age 70). Who will take Scandurra’s seat in Barnstable Village remains an open question amongst court-watchers. But no matter which judges are sitting in Barnstable Village one thing is clear: having only two judges for every divorce, child custody, and family law issue across all of Cape Cod makes Barnstable County unique. “Most counties have four or five judges,” says longtime Cape attorney Carmela Miraglia. “A lawyer doesn’t need to maintain a perfect relationship with every judge all of the time.” On the Cape, Miraglia explains, a divorce lawyer’s livelihood is closely tied to his or her standing in the eyes of the two judges.
“The attorneys, court staff, and judges are a very tight-knit community on Cape Cod,” says Miraglia. “In a lot of ways, this is a good thing: close relationships help [settle cases].” The small world of family law on the Cape, however, is not always a positive.
“The problem is that it’s sometimes the attorney’s job to challenge a judge,” says Owens, who also appears in Barnstable County. “When dealing with tough issues—like child abuse—an attorney can’t always please the judge.” Because many Cape-area family law attorneys practice exclusively in Barnstable County – appearing almost exclusively in front of the same two judges – attorneys from off-Cape firms can feel like outsiders in a very tight clique.
However, for some clients an attorney from outside the “Barnstable bubble” is exactly what is needed.
A World in Two Halves: “On-Cape” and “Off-Cape”
“People who spend time on the Cape quickly learn that the natives believe the universe is split into two halves: on-Cape and off-Cape,” says Owens. “Everything Cape Codders know and love is ‘on-Cape.’ The rest of the universe is ‘off-Cape.’” It’s not that Cape Codders distrust outsiders, says Owens, it’s just that off-Cape service providers – lawyers included – can seem remote and away. “As kids, we’d joked about [Cape residents] breaking out in hives when they crossed the Sagamore Bridge.”
“I have been appearing in Barnstable County for over ten years,” says Miraglia. “The fact that I represented off-Cape clients was a bit of a novelty.” Most Cape Cod family law attorneys focus primarily – or exclusively – in Barnstable County, Miraglia says.
In the world of family law, off-Cape translates to court houses with more than two judges. Plymouth Probate Court has four judges. At any given time, Norfolk County has between four and five judges. Bristol County? Four. As a South Shore law firm with offices in Hingham and E. Sandwich, attorneys from Lynch & Owens regularly appear in front of more than 15 judges across Barnstable, Plymouth, Norfolk, and Bristol counties.
“The difference is pretty striking,” says Owens. “In courts with four or five judges, the judicial lineup changes quite a bit, with new judges coming and going. Hundreds of different attorneys appear in these courts. It is very different from Barnstable County, where the attorneys appear before the same two judges constantly for a decade.”
The small-town intimacy of Barnstable Probate Court means that, like Cheers, everybody knows your name. However, this intimacy comes with a downside: “If you are arguing a case in front of a judge who presides over 50% of your cases, you need to be careful about challenging that judge’s authority,” says Owens. “Off-Cape attorneys can sometimes afford to take more risks on behalf of clients in Barnstable County.”
Inside Knowledge vs. Independence: Picking a Family Law Attorney on the Cape
Lawyers like giving the same answer to every question: it depends. “People with divorce and custody cases on the Cape sometimes struggle to decide if they should hire an on-Cape or off-Cape attorney,” says Owens. On-Cape attorneys are generally insiders in the tight-knit legal community in Barnstable Village. They know the other attorneys, the court staff, and the judges—often on a first-name basis. “In many cases,” Miraglia says, “that kind of inside knowledge benefits clients by allowing the lawyer to tailor his or her arguments to the particular views of the judge.”
“I’ve spent more than [a] decade cultivating relationships in Barnstable County,” Miraglia says. “Most of the time, those relationships are big assets for my clients.”
In some cases, however, Miraglia says it’s a relief knowing that she appears regularly in three other courts. “It’s a small world for attorneys who work exclusively in Barnstable County. I used to do it myself. A bad day at court feels a lot worse when the judge who chewed you out is in charge of half of your cases.”
For Cape clients whose cases have been in front of the same judge for years, using an off-Cape attorney can be preferable. “There are cases – often involving child custody – that keep returning to the same judge, again and again, for years,” says Owens. “The judge gets to the point where he or she feels [that they] know the parties. [The] Judge can develop preconceptions about the parties that can be hard to change, even when they are presented with new facts. An attorney sometimes needs to challenge the judge to open his or her mind.” Off-Cape attorneys are sometimes better positioned to challenge a judge’s entrenched view of a particular case.
“Trust me, this is not unique to Barnstable County,” says Owens. “Judges develop hardened views about parties in every court.” What’s different about Barnstable is that on-Cape attorneys feel less latitude to challenge judges whose approval plays a big part in that attorney’s livelihood. “If 90% of your practice is in Barnstable County, maybe you can’t afford to alienate one of the two judges. It’s just a reality of doing business,” says Owens.
When Independence Trumps Inside Knowledge, Clients Should Consider Off-Cape Attorneys
In cases where independence trumps inside knowledge, an off-Cape attorney may be preferable. “There is no one size fits all answer,” explains Owens. “In almost every case it is important for the attorney to ‘know your judge.’ That’s true for both on-Cape and off-Cape attorneys. The question is: what [to] do with that knowledge? For some cases, an insider attorney is the best fit; in others, an outsider view is preferable.”
“By having a strong presence on-Cape and off-Cape, we see both sides of the coin,” says Miraglia. “It’s important to know the judges and fellow attorneys in your community, but you don’t want to be so close to the establishment that [you] can’t challenge the status quo.”
Lynch & Owens are divorce and family law attorneys who appear regularly in Barnstable County.