Twelve times over five years, Yazmin Cruz and Marcio Hernandez went to court to try to make their uncontested divorce happen. Twelve times, their paperwork got caught in a snag, and to their great consternation, kept their marriage intact.
This month, they were back in Sacramento's William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, for the 13th time. Once again, something came up: a child support issue. But this time, they would not leave the building in frustration. This time, they had signed up for the Sacramento Superior Court's new one-day divorce program.
With the aid of Lincoln Law School student Gabriel Campos, who helped them through the paperwork, and Judge Pro Tem Cheri Simmons, who made sure the divorce met state legal requirements, they walked out of the courthouse not man and wife -- and they couldn't have been happier.
''I'm glad it's over, it's done," a smiling Hernandez said, after driving 400 miles the night before from Long Beach. "It's been years, and it took a few seconds to get it done. Now we can move on."
About 20 couples a month are untying the knot in the court's one-day divorce program, designed for the 72 percent of applicants for dissolution in Sacramento County who go through the process without lawyers. A good percentage of the parties -- almost all of them financially pinched -- generally agree on all the terms of their dissolution, no matter how complicated, and really don't need high-priced legal help.
After practice runs that took place under wraps in December, the program went public in April. It is available to anybody who filed for divorce at least six months ago and is ready for judgment. Court officials hope to expand fairly quickly to handle as many as 100 cases a month.
''We're skimming the cream off the bottom," Judge James Mize said of the program he created. "The easiest cases are at the bottom, and we're getting rid of them so people who don't really need to have a trial can get it taken care of.
''As you get to the top, people who really have trouble with communication, who have dysfunctional relationships, who argue about everything -- fine, those cases are going to trial. But there are a lot of people at the bottom who just want to get on with their lives. And there's practically no dispute."
Mize said he created the program out of his frustration over the frustration he saw. Couples would spend years trying to navigate divorce court on their own, to save on lawyers fees that start at about $1,000 for the simplest uncontested cases and can escalate into the tens of thousands of dollars the more complicated and contentious they get.
For now, his one-day program is the only one going in California.
Simmons said she was gratified to see the anxiety dissipate as Cruz and Hernandez worked through the documents.
''They are able to accomplish something and work together in a way that is very satisfying," Simmons said, "particularly after years of not being able to accomplish something that they both need."
With no budget the program would not work if not for the volunteers.
Stasia Salmon is a second-year student at McGeorge School of Law. She helped Campos guide Cruz and Hernandez through the computer room. Then she ushered them back to the pro tems to get their judgment prepared.
''Some of these people have been dealing with this for 10 or 12 years, and they can't get past the bureaucratic red tape by themselves," Salmon said.
''They get frustrated. Then they come here, and it may be a little bit of a mess, but we get it all done. And they're so relieved and so happy; it's the only time I ever see people leaving the family court with smiles on their faces."