Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS’ Divorce etc… podcast, where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it. We’re Jessica and T.H. And keep in mind you can get exEXPERTS in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter. Get the latest news and find out all about our events before anyone else, plus, access to special discounts and prices. Head to exEXPERTS.com to subscribe.
T.H.: Welcome, everybody, to today’s Divorce etc… podcast. We have the honorable Ronny Jo Siegal with us. We found Ronny from so many of our exEXPERTS who said, you’ve got to call her. You’ve got to call her. She’s got to be on exEXPERTS’ platform and share her experience with your audience. We really are so happy and appreciate you giving your time to share some insights with our audience today.
Ronny: Well, T.H. and Jessica, thank you very much for asking me to speak with you and those people that follow your site. I’m honored to be here. Thank you.
Jessica: Thank you so much.
T.H.: We’re going to get right into it. As some of you may have heard, if you’re listening to our podcast, I have been in front of three judges in a courtroom. I’ve been in front of two judges outside of a courtroom, who are retired, and tried to help us mediate. It’s a daunting experience to be in front of a judge. All of my judges were very different. I have to say, I am partial to women because unfortunately, the male judge I had was not really supportive of women. That’s what I felt anyway. That was my first experience. I was scared, to say the least. I guess my first question to you is, I’m someone who comes into the court scared, if people are headed to court, and as we know, it only takes one of the parties to drag the other one into court, what kind of advice can you give? Because you don’t know what to expect, and I think most people just want to go in and be like, Judge Siegal, don’t you see it my way? I’m going to tell you everything so you will believe in me. Let’s start with that first myth, which I believe it is.
Ronny: Well, it’s an inability–I mean, it’s an accurate hope that every litigant comes into court with the view that if they just had that opportunity to tell their story, that judge would be “fair” with them, and in fact, rule in their favor. The dilemma is–and in fact, family court is what we call a court of equity. Again, that reinforces the view that when you come into the courtroom, you’re going to be treated fairly by the judge that’s going to hear your case. But there are so many other issues that affect the ultimate outcome, that if I could just point out to you of what a litigant, a man or a woman can expect, that may alter not your belief in the court system, but rather maybe that’s not the direction you want to take. Meaning if the judge just heard my story, and we had a trial, I think that judge would rule in my favor. I think that’s the hope because I have a story to tell. Let me just share some pointers to you.
Jessica: Please, please.
Ronny: So, one, it takes time to get to trial. The judge in front of you has not 10 cases, but hundreds of cases. You are one of many cases to this judge. Unless you are a “custody” case, which happens, absent that, your case is going to be handled in a chronological order. So if you start on day one, there are those cases before you that go first. You have to wait your turn. Even judges who I think are very conscientious and wanting to move their calendar and to get those matrimonial matters resolved, and indeed, there’s a public policy, at least in the state of New Jersey, that from the beginning to the end, it should all take place within one year. I ask you both to think back to your own situations. Did your case take just one year? Highly unlikely, even the simplest of cases seem to take longer than that. Why is it? It’s because even the most conscientious of judges can’t move a case that quickly because they have to attend to so many other cases. Maybe that’s the reason why 99% of all cases are settled as opposed to tried because people are going through emotional turmoil, because every case I know of involves some type of emotional havoc to themselves, to the children, to their families, and you want to get it resolved. So how do you do it? Go ahead. I’m sorry–
Jessica: I was going to say, I mean, logically and pragmatically, what you’re saying makes so much sense. The courts have a lot of cases in front of them. There’s only so fast that your case will be heard in front of a court. Of course, you’re one of numerous cases that the judge is dealing with. On the flip side, I think that what you’re saying is exactly what everyone is afraid of, like, I’m a number, I’m just one of 300 cases in front of this judge, they just read my papers yesterday, and they couldn’t possibly remember the last time I was in front of them eight months ago, or whatever the case may be. I did not litigate, fortunately for me, so I don’t have that experience to play off of. But I think that’s exactly what everyone’s afraid of. They’re dealing with so much, that my circumstances are not meaningful or important. Yet at the same time, this is my life.
Ronny: While I think you captured an important point, I would not say to you that the court system is indifferent or insensitive to your case. Indeed, I think I tried very hard to remember every case where the parties have appeared before me before. That was part of my responsibility. But the opportunity to give it the time that it needs to handle your case conscientiously, from beginning to end, it’s going to take a long period of time, and that’s unsatisfactory. And so the issue is how do we resolve it, right? How do we get past that fact? Now you also have to remember, or one has to remember, a judge’s perspective as to what’s fair may be very different as to what you think is fair. I faced people that lived on $10,000 a year, $15,000 a year, and $25,000 a year. Those people on the other side of the continuum who hoped when they got an award of alimony and child support that they would be getting $10,000 a month, $15,000 a month. This is what a judge sees. A judge sees people that have limited income, and that’s a reality and more extraordinary income. Neither one is wrong, but that’s what a judge sees from a judge’s perspective. In addition, the problems that a family may have – the judge sees parties with disabilities, children with disabilities, how do they get health care coverage, how do they get the education they may need, and yet they also see at the other side of the spectrum, parties that it’s very important to get their child not only into college but to private college, not only into a summer program at the school but maybe that private sleep away camp. That’s a judge’s big picture. Is that your picture? Your case is very important to you, but to the judge, they see that. In addition, you have to remember judges who receive an excellent salary between, in New York and New Jersey, 160,000 to 165,000. Sometimes for a well-to-do family, when they talk about their difficulties, you’re dealing with somebody who has seen the very poor with a very limited means, how hard they work with their own needs, and now you know what their salaries are. How will that affect if at all, right, if at all?
Jessica: How could it not? How could it not affect–I come in there, and I’m like, I need 10,000 a month in child support. A judge is thinking, that’s almost my entire salary, and you’re saying you can’t possibly live without that? I mean, how can that not affect the outcome of that? Again, I think it plays directly into the fears of people going into court, this is the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed.
Ronny: Well, I think what you point out is a reality. But I would not say that judges are “prejudiced” against people who are more affluent, but rather, it’s just something that you have to recognize that you are one important case, but you are one of many important cases that a judge has to deal with. The person who you are speaking to sees a broad spectrum of people with varied financial circumstances and varying problems, and you have to keep that in mind. That should in fact influence what you’re going to do with your own case. Where can you get the best result? Where can you get more fairly heard? That’s what I think has to affect how you proceed with your own case.
Jessica: So where can a person be more fairly heard? Or where can someone get the best outcome? I mean, I think that we’ve spoken to a lot of lawyers who have–it seems like the general consensus is if you can settle, you’re better off.
Jessica: I think that there are a lot of people out there, people that I know personally that I’ve spoken to, and amongst people that T.H. and I have spoken to through exEXPERTS, who have just been worn down to the point where they will accept a settlement that they don’t think is fair or applicable to the reality of the situation, but feel they have no other options. Their lawyers are telling them you’re–you have to just assume what the outcome is going to be. Yes, there are laws, and there are things that judges have to rule on based on the law, but it seems there’s a lot of gray in there. You are at the mercy of whoever that is that’s working on your case.
T.H.: I felt I was totally at the mercy of the judge. I was so happy to move on from the first judge because I didn’t–also, the other thing is, is the judge in a good mood today? Did the judge just hear a really bad case and is annoyed with the lawyers and the defendant and whatever, and now it’s my turn? What is the mood of the judge? How does that play into my 30 minutes in front of the judge?
Ronny: I thought a little bit about how I would respond to that kind of a question.
T.H.: It’s definitely a question out there, but you can respond however you see fit.
Ronny: The court system affords parties going through a divorce a lot of opportunities to try to “settle” a case. They come for a Case Management Conference, there’s an Early Settlement Panel, there’s an Intensive Settlement Conference, and there’s required mediation. All those are steps that you take in an effort to promote a resolution. There are some people that still feel that things will be different if they have their case tried. To be honest with you, there are many risks involved. Courts don’t have great creativity. What do I mean by that? We’re bound by statute, and the statute gives us certain factors we have to look at. That one factor that I see repeated by many people, that I was a good spouse, I was a good mom, I was a good dad, and I tried and I did all the things that were expected of me, and now they’re all forgotten – there’s no factor for that one. Meaning, factor number 15 isn’t that factor. And so there are factors like health, and there are factors like age, and there are factors about income, but there’s not a factor of ‘I’m a good person’.
T.H.: About character.
Ronny: Yes. I want to underscore that if your case is before a judge, you have to remember that very thing that you thought you would find when you went to family court, that court of equity, oftentimes, just isn’t built into this system. And so you then have to put on a different hat. You have to try to resolve your case. The hat you wear every day when you’re resolving business problems, or financial problems, that same hat, but you’re filled with emotion, which is why hopefully, you have somebody that can speak with you and an attorney that can give you guidance because there isn’t one answer. If there was, every single attorney would look in that same book, and they would tell you this is what you can expect for alimony, this is where you could expect for equitable distribution, this is what we’re going to do with the liabilities, and this is how we’re going to do custody. But there isn’t that book. It’s argumentation. And so at the end of the day, I would say judges sometimes say, if you can’t resolve your case by the time you get to me for trial, now it’s in my hands, and I’m going to tell you what I think is fair. I don’t think anybody should risk putting their lives in the hands of a stranger, however, learned that stranger is. They should exercise as much control over their future as they can, even though it may well be a compromise. It shouldn’t be a disappointment. It should be an opportunity for you to think about what you need, think about what you want, and try to effectuate it in a different form. That’s why people talk a little bit about collaborative law, and they talk a little bit about mediation. Those are fine vehicles for you to be creative and get a resolution. There are some cases I believe that can’t be resolved, and some cases that have to be tried.
Jessica: What would you say are the top most common mistakes you see people making when they come into the courtroom? We’ve had some lawyers talk about the “mistake” of showing too much emotion, or not knowing that you are not able to speak when you have not been addressed by the judge. People, understandably, their emotions can take over. As the judge, what are the most common mistakes you have seen over the years and that you would tell people listening, these are the top three things to not do?
Ronny: Well, I don’t know if I could give you my top three, but I did give some thought about do’s and don’ts. What I would say to you, you’re a litigant, this is your matter, and now how should it be handled? Well, remember that you’ve selected an attorney who hopefully you feel very comfortable with, who’s going to be your advocate. But it is your case. So every opportunity that you have to be in court and to introduce yourself to the judge, by way of permitting the judge to see who you are, not hear who you want, but see who you are, you should take advantage of it, because judges do remember your face. Always be respectful. What does that mean? You have to look respectful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people dress in a manner that I think is really disrespectful to the court. We as judges have to wear a black robe. We expect lawyers, men or women, to wear suits or something that is formal. Well, we look at litigants and we think they should be respectful too. We think that they should look the part of being in court because as we may recall growing up, court is a serious place to be. I think they have to do that too because you are judged sometimes superficially by your demeanor. Judges read the paper, and so when we see the parties, we know when they appear before us, through their, what we call, case information statement, or in New York, a net asset statement, we know their finances. We know a lot about them. But this is an opportunity for you to introduce yourself. Don’t bring a shopping bag. I can’t tell you how many times for some reason, there’s a litigant who hasn’t gotten a briefcase yet, or hasn’t gotten a box yet, and brings a shopping bag with them to court because it has all the important papers that they have. We’re in court, and we really don’t do that much. Don’t bring your shopping bag. Never interrupt your attorney. You can write a note to your attorney in the hopes that your attorney might say something more that they may have forgotten, but never interrupt, never speak out, because judges form an opinion about that aspect. I would say you can really do a lot of homework in advance because you want your attorney to be the one that the judge relies on. Say the judge doesn’t really know a lot about your case, and they’re going to listen to two different attorneys, you want your attorney to be the one that the court listens to because you’re honest and because you know your facts. Because your judge will say, are there any health issues? How are the children doing? What are the incomes of the parties? You want your attorney to know that information. You should ask your attorney to give you the statutes. You should fill in all the factors, and let your attorney be as knowledgeable about who you are and what you need as anybody else. That’s your part, and that’s the role that you have to play.
Jessica: So for that, you’re saying you have to go into court being comfortable that your lawyer should entirely be your voice. Assume that you’re not going to speak.
Ronny: You’re not going to speak. They don’t want you to speak. This is not a trial. This is a court proceeding. Never bring your children to court. For some reason, there are those who believe having a youngster in court to show that they don’t have home care, to show that they were part of a domestic violence event, and the child is a witness to say that I didn’t get child support, and this is the child that is not being fed because they didn’t receive support, I think the judges you see, we speak for children, of all the people that are important to us, it’s really we’re the voice for children. We don’t want children to be in the middle. There are those people that in some way think that it’s appropriate to involve their child either in the home front, and I would say to you if there’s something that you never do, it’s never talk about your matrimonial matters to your youngster in any way, either to vindicate yourself or to explain what’s going on. Children love their parents. For whatever reason, they love both parents, and they don’t want to take sides. They just hope you as adults can come and figure it out without their involvement. Don’t bring them to court, and don’t talk to them on the outside. Don’t tape. Never tape.
Jessica: I think people, to your point, probably would bring kids hoping to appeal to the judge’s emotions, which probably goes on also to the conversations that we’ve had before where lawyers have talked about people who come in and they are scared, worried, overwhelmed, and can’t control their own emotions, understandably, and who will cry in court. It seems that also always generates a negative reaction from the judge. But meanwhile, I’m sure there are a lot of litigants who go in and you can’t help crying in a moment like that.
T.H.: I have to say something because obviously, it got easier the more I showed up, and mine took four years. But that first time in front of that judge, and what he said to me, I totally cried. I totally cried. I just felt this is going to be a nightmare. It was a nightmare in another way. But emotionally, I was like, he doesn’t even know me, and he’s making assumptions about me and what I need and don’t need. He has no idea.
Ronny: Well, I think crying is normal–
T.H.: Yeah, I mean, to expect someone to be robotic, and you’re saying that character isn’t a factor in deciding things, we’re still human. I guess the question is, is it okay to be human – in control, but still be human?
Ronny: I think yes. But I think from a judge’s vantage point, I think we see a party who is overwhelmed by the emotions of divorce. We know that. We understand it. I was in the family court because I wanted to be there. I understood full well how hard it was for men and for women to go through this process. But I guess a lot of it is procedural. I want to know when are they going to get their interrogatories in? When are they going to take their depositions?
T.H.: I know. It was all a checklist of where’s the rest of your stuff, we’ve got another case behind you, let’s go.
Ronny: I can move your case forward. Even if I was only interested in your case, you don’t need your judge to be your friend. You need your judge to help you resolve your case and get it done in a way that’s fair to you and to your family. How do I do that? I think that’s what a judge’s focus is, how do I move that case forward in a fair manner? You have to listen very carefully. You have to pay attention. You size up people too. I want you to know that we look at the parties, and we size them up. We see their appearances, how they react, and how they’re conducting themselves. That’s part of our assessment of credibility and who these individuals are. Are they dismissive? Are they rude to the court? Are they rude to their attorneys? Are they rude to their wife? Do they say ill things to their wives or husbands, and yet they’re very respectful of the court? What’s that all about? Nothing goes unnoticed by a judge, who has an opportunity different than the parties and the attorneys to see the whole courtroom, to see the whole panel right in front of them. We see everything going on.
T.H.: Their body language. I have a question, which I’m not really sure if I had asked in my case, but are you allowed to petition to change judges?
Ronny: Yes, you can. There has to be a reason.
T.H.: Right, of course.
Ronny: It has to be a legal reason. The attorney who represents you will say, well, will the judge be offended because you are making that application to that judge? You’re asking that judge to recuse himself or herself, and why are you asking that? Unless there’s an extraordinarily good reason, like a conflict of interest kind of thing, most judges just stay with the case. I don’t think, to be honest with you, I would be offended if somebody felt on this matter I might not be as fair to them as they would like because I think the next time in court, the other side might feel that way. You can make the application, but there has to be a very good legal reason to move it. Otherwise, judges will be moving out and about all the time because–
Jessica: It sounds like it’s a little risky, because if they don’t recuse themselves, now you’re stuck with the same judge, and you’ve told them you don’t like them and you don’t want them on your case. Now you’d be worried that you’re going to deal with the wrath of that. I’m curious, Judge, whether or not there were times where you felt for whatever reason that you wanted to rule a certain way in a case on emotion, but your hands were tied based on the statutes, the law, whatever. When it does have these gray areas, there presumably may have been times where you really can empathize and understand and feel that is the right way to go, but yet, this is how it has to be.
Ronny: Well, I think, in the law, in these situations of equitable distribution or alimony or custody and parenting time, it is gray. It isn’t black or white. I think you are affected by the facts that you’re given. So that could be the case. But I would say to you, it’s not a creative area. Law is not creative. If you need a result that’s a little bit more creative, then you’re in the wrong forum for that. You should go to mediation. Because your judge is not legally permitted to do some things that are outside the scope of what the statute dictates. That can be problematic for you.
T.H.: Do you think that the system, and you may not want to answer this, so that’s totally fine, but do you think that the system is antiquated in terms of judgment? I don’t know if there are new things. It feels like there are new things all the time coming up. I know you’ve seen a lot, but I’ve also heard that the system is antiquated. There are other rumors around from some documentaries that were done that judges are in cahoots with lawyers, and it’s all a business of generating money for the lawyers and maybe for some judges, I have no idea. But this is just the stuff that’s out there that I read about now. And so I’m just curious about your opinion.
Ronny: It’s very sad that litigants have come to feel that impression, that they don’t feel that they can go to court and the system is fair to them. That’s really a tragedy. Do I think it’s antiquated? I think maybe if we have more judges, then you could move it quickly, and if things could be more affordable because sometimes parties are self-represented. Should it be as difficult as it is for self-represented individuals who can’t afford counsel to find their way to get a fair result? And other people, understandably and happily, they can have attorneys, but not everybody can afford it. So, making representation more affordable, making more judges so that you can get a more prompt result. But in terms of court being in cahoots, to be honest with you, although I gather that’s been said, I have a wonderful view of the attorneys that have been before me, who I think are very caring, and the other judges that I’ve worked with who I think are very dedicated, very dedicated to the work that we do.
Jessica: I’m curious, you just brought up the idea of obviously, that there are a lot of litigants who come in that are unrepresented. In this particular divorce documentary that T.H. and I had seen, which I believe is called Divorce Inc., it really talked about–
T.H.: Divorce Corp, C-O-R-P.
Jessica: Divorce Corp, yes, and it talked about–it was nationwide. It wasn’t just in the Northeast or in the tri-state area here, but it did talk about that in a number of courtrooms across the country in primarily other areas, that it seemed the majority of unrepresented people were women. It seemed like a lot of them were being put in a position where things were happening. They were having judgments against them, almost for technicalities. They didn’t understand the statutes, they didn’t understand the technicalities of the law, and so they hadn’t prepared things properly. In being in that position, they were the underdogs. The judges were getting frustrated because it was more work for the judges that these people didn’t understand and had to be explained things in court. Do you feel, and not necessarily in your courtroom, but overall, would you say that people who are unrepresented are in fact at a disadvantage in getting a divorce?
Ronny: Yes. Unless your case is so simple, meaning you’re there just to get a divorce, or maybe a less complex case where it’s a house to be sold, or there are no children, or maybe there’s one child and both of you are wage earners, absent something that I would call on a more simple track, I think everybody is aided by having assistance with people that are knowledgeable about that area. How could it not be? Like, do you need a doctor to be in?
T.H.: Right, of course.
Jessica: What do you consider to be the most unfair aspects of divorce court?
Ronny: Well, I think if I could wave a magic wand and hope that things would be better, it would be faster. The time that you file your complaint for divorce until the time that you’re entitled to get your judgment of divorce, it would be faster for you. Because while that’s happening, you have children that are in a state of–their parents were one place, and now they’re someplace else. It’s hard for them, and it’s hard for you because you don’t know what your future holds. You don’t know what your finances will be. I would like it faster. I think everybody has to play a part. I think the attorneys have to be responsive to their clients. I was thinking that if you ever had an attorney, you don’t want that attorney that can’t call you back. You want that attorney that calls you back right away, even if it’s only to say I’m in the middle of trial and I can’t talk to you now, but I could talk to you later, that I got that phone call. You don’t want the one that says, I work from nine to five just like you, and I can’t, because our problems, as you know, can happen before nine, right after five, and you need to have a way. It’s not that people are not respectful, but sometimes there’s a certain sense of urgency in family law, that you want that person who will be responsive to you. So I guess, attorneys that are more caring, not that I don’t think that they are–
Jessica: No, understood.
T.H.: But I think to your point, and–
Ronny: Go ahead.
T.H.: We’ve brought it up a few times, just so everybody really takes the time to pick the right attorney for you. I dove right into it. I grabbed her. She was a referral. That was like a knee-jerk reaction. But that’s what we did 14 years ago. What’s the first thing you do? You get a lawyer. And so that’s what I did. I didn’t come in with questions for her. I didn’t ask her anything. I just spewed everything all over her desk from my mouth, basically. Then I rode along with her. I challenged her sometimes. But you can challenge your attorney. You should ask questions. They do work for you. If they’re not being and representing you properly in front of a judge, that means they’re probably not doing it properly when they’re negotiating with the other attorney either. Then you fire that attorney.
Jessica: So hold on, because I have a friend who is on either her third or fourth attorney. How does that look to a judge?
Ronny: I’ll tell you what it looks like to the judge. That happens on occasion, and maybe your friend could really explain the mistakes that she made after each situation, but oftentimes we think, well, maybe there’s a problem with that client, that they can’t select one person that can properly represent them. Is it always the attorney’s fault? I think we do think about how many times the person has engaged, a new attorney, and then we think maybe there’s a problem with the party and not the attorney.
Jessica: Yeah, that’s a scary place to be. Do you feel the laws, and I know that you were a judge in New Jersey, so you can’t necessarily speak to every state across the country or the world, but do you feel the law skews more in favor of women over men or vice versa in any aspect?
Ronny: Well, I do to the degree that I understand other states. New Jersey is more favorable in offering the opportunity for women to receive a fair share of alimony and for children to get a college education and contribution from both parties. But the law did change. Some parts of that change in the alimony were positive, but in some aspects to that change, they were negative, and the same thing with custody and parenting time. At the end of the day, it’s really how you advocate, I think, as opposed to the law per se. But I do think there are states that I’m aware of that they’re not as generous or as fair to women. If women are the ones that are not the wage earner, and they’re hoping to receive support from the spouse, some states are not as generous with them as our state.
Jessica: And so after everything, even being the judge, your recommendation to people going through a divorce would still be if you’re able to settle, don’t let it get to court if it doesn’t need to?
Ronny: Right. I would say your better view is to be in control, to do your homework, to select a good attorney, and to try to resolve your case. Be part of the 95% of people that resolve their case, as opposed to that small number that are insistent that they must have a tried by a stranger – however smart – a stranger.
T.H.: I will say that the other two judges, and I never petitioned to change my judge, it just happened that they were rotating in and out, but they really tried. They really tried to help us settle. I felt they were helping me because I wanted to be done. But then he called in another expert I had to go see and another expert. The more people that get involved in your case, it really is there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and then you get scared that, well, not all these people are going to represent me, and how does he even know if I’m a good mom? I implore everyone–I was married to someone who was not letting go. Cream rises to the top. We settled the morning of trial, but all that money was spent preparing for trial. I don’t know…I try to look back and see what I could have done differently, and the truth is, there was nothing.
Ronny: You were a victim. In being a victim, you were–
T.H.: There was nothing I could do. I could just fight for the things that I knew were super important. That’s actually what I brought up when we were in settlement conversations, to resolve those things that were really important to me, that maybe he didn’t realize for sure, or he wouldn’t have agreed to them.
Ronny: You brought out a point which I had wanted to share, which was going to court versus trying to resolve it. The cost, emotional, because there’s a delay in time, and the financial cost of going to court, of preparing for trial, of preparing for experts, is so enormous that wouldn’t that money be better spent–
T.H.: Oh, yes.
Ronny: –on anything else, or in your pocket no less. Wouldn’t it be better spent than it would be on experts and attorneys and elsewhere? The emotional toll is great, but the financial toll is enormous. Yeah, you brought out a wonderful point, and that’s very accurate.
T.H.: Every time I walked into court, even though it got easier to be in front of a judge, literally, my stomach was churning that I was again walking into the courthouse and sitting at the table. Just the process of it all is just hard. So everyone, do the best you can. Listen to what Honorable Judge Siegal has said to all of you. If you’re stuck like me, then, unfortunately, you’re stuck. But there are so many more options today than there were for us back then. Thank you so much for your time again and sharing your knowledge and guidance and direction. You are going to help a lot of people make the best choices that they can.
Ronny: I hope so. T.H. and Jessica, it was so nice to be with you today.
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