She may not wear judicial robes, but that doesn’t affect Emily Gaylord Martinez’s ability to mete out justice as a family court referee in Kings County Family Court in Brooklyn. It’s up to her to untangle some of the thorniest questions that confront families in crisis, from child custody disputes to orders of protection.
Martinez’ role is effectively the same as a judge’s—she can render a decision as long as the parties involved agree to have her do so. If not, she hears the case and sends a report to a family court judge for approval. Her duty, as she reminds new judges and court attorneys during training, is “to be objective and neutral, to listen to what each parent says.”
Many parents who come to her courtroom have a contentious relationship. “Your fighting and arguing with each other has a negative impact on your children,” she tells them. “I frame their conflict as it pertains to the kids. Every now and then I see the lightbulb go off. If they really do listen and internalize what I’m saying, they can ratchet down the hostility and develop some kind of relationship with the other parent. The court’s task is what’s in the children’s best interest.” The biggest challenge she faces is the volume of cases. She typically hears more than a dozen a day.
Martinez took her current position in 2012 after working as a court attorney in family court, including an internship with Judge Rhea Friedman ’68. Martinez originally worked in construction project management before enrolling at St. John’s Law School in 1993. At Barnard, she majored in political science and served as president of the Student Government Association. Barnard “allowed me as an undergraduate to have an experience of leadership,” she says. “I was in the company of other competent, smart women.”
Despite the challenges, “I love my job,” she says. “Once a parent said: ‘Miss Martinez, can I say something? You were totally fair.’”