What would you do?
By Scott R. Mote, Esq., Executive Director of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program
Judge A has been a respected member of the judiciary for 16 years, but you notice that he has been engaging in conduct that is unlike him and that is inconsistent with his judicial obligations. He has failed to prepare for oral arguments, has been short with and has had combative interactions with staff and colleagues, has attempted to defer his judicial authority to a staff member, is frequently absent with no excuses, and has also exposed the court’s computer network to viruses. What are you required to do to help Judge A in this situation?
Judge B is 65 years old, and has been on the bench for 20 years. His rulings and demeanor have always been steady, and others at the court respect and look up to him—until recently. Judge B has been missing deadlines, calling litigants by the wrong names, forgetting about certain cases. He is just not the same. Others in the courtroom are starting to talk openly about his erratic behavior and forgetfulness. What should you do to help Judge B in this situation?
Judge C has made it obvious to others that she has been abusing substances before, during and after court. She stumbles on the bench, slurs her words, smells like alcohol, and she falls asleep in her office. You approach her about how others at the court have been noticing that she has been behaving differently and not in accordance with her judicial duties. Judge C shoos you away, and tells you to mind your own business because you do not know what you are talking about. She claims that she is perfectly fine. What should you do to help Judge C?
According to Judicial Conduct Rule 2.14 (Disability and Impairment), “A judge having a reasonable belief that the performance of a lawyer or another judge is impaired by drugs or alcohol, or by a mental, emotional, or physical condition, shall take appropriate action, which may include a confidential referral to a lawyer or judicial assistance program.” “Appropriate action” means helping the judge in question address the problem and prevent harm to the justice system. Depending on the circumstances, appropriate action may include, but is not limited to, speaking directly to the impaired person and notifying a partner, a colleague, or an individual with supervisory responsibility over the impaired person, or making a referral to an assistance program.
It is difficult for a judge to be in this type of scenario and take appropriate action. We have been taught to mind our own business and look the other way. We do not want to get involved. We are too busy. We are afraid of legal implications. We are in a different political party. Nothing in the statute creating my court gives me authority to oversee another judge/magistrate. We do not know how to help or what to say. But it is our responsibility to try to help. Helping another legal professional does not mean that you are “telling” on this person. It means that you notice that this person needs help, and you are taking action. If a person were having chest pains or fainted in front of you, you would most likely seek medical attention immediately. Why not call for help when you see that a colleague is in mental health distress?
How to help
Start with a simple question. “Are you ok?” This shows the person that you cared enough to ask about their well-being. If a person opens up to you and tells you what is wrong, just listen. Do not try to fix their problems. Sometimes a stressed/depressed/anxious person just needs to let it out. Listen and ask how you can help. It’s ok to ask if they are having suicidal thoughts. Some people believe that if they ask that question, that they are putting the idea of suicide in the other person’s mind, but that is not true. It makes the person pause for a moment to think about the severity of their state of mind. “If someone asks me if I’m ok, then I must not be doing ok because they noticed that I’m not being myself.”
If you approach the person and he/she does not respond in a healthy manner, contact the Judicial Advisory Group (JAG). JAG is a peer-based confidential assistance group that works with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) to help judges and magistrates with personal and professional issues. OLAP/JAG can assess whether he or she truly needs assistance, and what kind of help might be appropriate.
If you contact JAG,
They will ask you the reasons for your concern and about other information regarding the judge or magistrate.
They will ask you about others who might provide additional information or corroborate your observations, such as a colleague, a spouse or a friend.
OLAP’s professional staff will assess the information to make a provisional determination about what may be happening.
OLAP and JAG together will decide what help might be appropriate and how to offer it in the best way.
It is essential to understand these three factors about JAG:
The Judicial Advisory Group ensures that a referral does not reflect a desire to discredit a judge or magistrate based on judicial decisions or other official acts.
JAG/OLAP is completely confidential.
JAG is not a substitute for discipline. OLAP/JAG helps judges and magistrates with issues that may have caused or could cause disciplinary issues. Any assistance provided is entirely independent of possible disciplinary proceedings.
As legal professionals, it is our job is to help people. The next time you see a co-worker, friend, family member or stranger in distress, I encourage you to ask if they are ok. Your question might lead them to seek help so they can live to tell their stories, which, in turn, will help others know that help is available and that they can recover from mental health issues.
In addition to being a caring colleague and friend, judges also have a responsibility and duty to protect the public and to maintain the integrity of the legal profession. If you notice that an attorney or judge might be experiencing age-related cognitive decline, depression, anxiety or other issues that are affecting them as a human being, let alone their ability to practice competently, it is time to help. Not only are you helping them personally, but you are protecting the public from a person who is not doing his sworn oath of helping people.