Before you judge judges, try walking in their shoes
By Scott R. Mote, Esq., Executive Director of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
The point of this article is to recognize and educate others on judges’ careers and how it affects them. It is not meant to paint the career of a judge as gloomy or unmanageable. It is far from that. Being a judge is one of the most honorable careers. But as in most jobs, contributors to stress can play a large role in a judge’s day-to-day responsibilities. So before you judge a judge, try walking in his or her shoes.
The American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) recently released the 2019 National Judicial Stress and Resilience Survey, which identifies the primary sources of judicial stress. The results are not surprising. Many sources contribute to the amount of stress on judges. Of the 1,034 judges who were surveyed, 79.7% reported that the importance/impact of decisions is the main source of stress. Other top issues reported include heavy docket, unprepared attorneys/pro se litigants, public ignorance of the courts and isolation.
Importance/impact of decisions
According to the CoLAP study, 30.8% of the judges surveyed ruminate or worry about cases after they are decided. A judge’s job decides the fate of others. This can have a lasting effect on judges. Put yourself in a judge’s place for a minute and think about having to decide whether a 14-year-old boy should be tried as an adult and put in prison for the rest of his life. Think about having to make the decision to remove a child from her home, seeing the consequences of drug and/or alcohol addiction, the effects of child abuse and neglect, etc. Judges have to decide complicated issues, and they have to live with their decisions.
Judges are also responsible for setting precedent. Decisions are still made based on rules that judges decided more than 200 years ago. Knowing that their decision can not only affect the fate of one person, but also many more in the future, can weigh heavily on a judge’s mind.
Many factors contribute to the ever-increasing caseload that Ohio judges face: increases in population, divorces and drug use are only a few. In 2018, a total of 3,013,338 incoming cases were reported across Ohio’s courts. With tight budgets and increased caseload for judges, it makes it difficult to achieve the primary function of the court: to resolve cases efficiently.
The CoLAP Study found that 38.8% of judges felt fatigue and low energy after hearing several cases in a row. Working in an environment where you feel there is no end, where you work longer hours only to know that there will not be any relief the next day can cause burnout, fatigue, sleep disturbances, etc.
Before you think a judge has a “cushy” job, you need to understand the day-to-day responsibilities and the stress that judges endure.
Public ignorance of the court
Many people who attend court do not understand it. A 2017 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center discovered that:
More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;
Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.
A judge must remain calm and impartial when hearing cases. This might be difficult when he or she is in a courtroom with citizens who do not fully understand the nature of the process. It is not the judge’s responsibility to educate the people in his or her courtroom. Dealing with this day after day can get tiring and add to the judge’s stress load. It also takes more time, which adds to the increasing docket.
Being a judge can feel as if you are under constant scrutiny. The lack of privacy in your personal life can lead to stress and isolation, inside and outside of the courtroom. When you go from being an attorney to a judge, your life changes in a dramatic way. Many people may not realize the changes you must make.
You have to remain neutral at all times, which means that you might not be able to associate the same way you used to with attorney friends.
Your family is in the spotlight, which means you need to educate them on the importance of being fair and impartial and you need to keep them safe. (37.1% reported concern for personal or family safety)
You might worry about going out in public, even to the grocery store, as people might judge you on what you are buying. You might think twice or have to drive out of your county if you want to go to church, buy a certain book, alcohol, or magazine, for fear that others will label you as biased.
Because you are the judge, you might feel as if you have no one to talk to or relate to.
These are only a few scenarios that affect a judge’s everyday life. Some judges isolate themselves, which limits them from being able to enjoy their family and/or leisure time. Some might go to work, go home and go to bed without enjoying any after-work activities. This can lead to depression.
Judges in domestic and/or criminal court witness the uglier side of life on a daily basis. They see murder weapons, rape victims, photos of mangled people who were injured or killed. They witness domestic violence, children who want to be with their parents but cannot because their parents made bad choices, etc. Judges are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events that have affected other people. Being exposed to this type of imagery can cause what some refer to as secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or indirect trauma.
Other sources of stress
Other sources of stress include long hours of work without a break, insufficient staff support, courthouse security concerns, cases involving severe trauma/horror, and many more. Put yourself in a judge’s shoes and think about how you would deal with these issues.
The Judicial Advisory Group can help
A judge’s job is to provide competent guidance to the public, which can sometimes turn into stress. Stress can lead to an undiagnosed mental disorder that could affect the way a judge decides a case, so it is important that judges seek help if they feel that their mental health could use a check-up.
Judges can contact the Judicial Advisory Group, a peer-based assistance group that helps the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) provide confidential assistance to judges.
JAG helps OLAP:
Screen referrals regarding judges to be sure they represent genuine concerns.
Respond to judges who need help in ways that address the demands of judges’ responsibilities and positions.
OLAP and JAG help judges in several areas:
Issues of judicial temperament and diligence that on their face do not rise to disciplinary violations
Burnout, stress, and other debilitating conditions
Depression or other mental health issues
Alcohol and substance use disorder
For more information:
Call (800) 348-4343
All inquiries are confidential.