A California appeals court had disqualified a private judge being used by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in their divorce case, handing Jolie a major victory.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed with her that Judge John W Ouderkirk did not sufficiently disclose business relationships with Pitt’s lawyers.
“Judge Ouderkirk’s ethical breach, considered together with the information disclosed concerning his recent professional relationships with Pitt’s counsel, might cause an objective person, aware of all the facts, reasonably to entertain a doubt as to the judge’s ability to be impartial. Disqualification is required,” the court ruled.
The decision means the custody fight over the couple’s five children, which was nearing an end, could be starting over.
The judge had already ruled the pair divorced, but separated the child custody issues.
A statement from Pitt’s representative said: “The appeal court ruling was based on a technical procedural issue. The facts haven’t changed. There is an extraordinary amount of factual evidence which led the judge — and the many experts who testified — to reach their clear conclusion about what is in the children’s best interests.
“We will continue to do what’s necessary legally based on the detailed findings of what’s best for the children.”
Judge Ouderkirk declined to disqualify himself when Jolie asked him to in a filing in August. A lower court judge ruled that her request came too late. Jolie’s lawyers then appealed.
Oral arguments in front of the appeals court on July 9 focused on which ethical rules should apply to private judges who, like Judge Ouderkirk, are usually retired superior court judges.
“If you’re going to play the role of a paid private judge you have to play by the rules and the rules are very clear, they require full transparency,” Jolie’s lawyer Robert Olson said. “Matters that should have been disclosed were not disclosed.”
The panel questioned whether such an arrangement should be allowed in California, but the ruling applies only to Judge Ouderkirk.
Jolie, 46, and Pitt, 57, were among Hollywood’s most prominent couples for 12 years. They had been married for two years when Jolie filed for divorce in 2016.
They were declared divorced in April 2019, after their lawyers asked for a judgment that allowed a married couple to be declared single while other issues remained, including finances and child custody.
In May, Jolie and her lawyers criticised Judge Ouderkirk for not allowing the couple’s children to give evidence in the proceedings.
The actress also said the judge had “failed to adequately consider” a section of the California courts code which says it is detrimental to the best interest of the child if custody is awarded to a person with a history of domestic violence.
Her filing did not give details about what it was referring to, but her lawyers submitted a document under seal in March that purportedly offers additional information.
The ruling does not address whether the children should be allowed to give evidence.