Why Judges?

Judges occupy an esteemed position in the legal profession and society at large. For most, serving on the bench is the capstone of their legal career. The position, however, can take a toll on judges’ health and well-being. Judges regularly confront contentious, personal, and vitriolic proceedings. Judges presiding over domestic relations dockets make life-changing decisions for children and families daily. Some report lying awake at night worrying about making the right decision or the consequences of that decision. Other judges face the stress of presiding over criminal cases with horrific underlying facts.

Also stressful is the increasing rate of violence against judges inside and outside the courthouse. Further, many judges contend with isolation in their professional lives and sometimes in their personal lives. When a judge is appointed to the bench, former colleagues who were once a source of professional and personal support can become more guarded and distant. Often, judges do not have feedback on their performance. A number take the bench with little preparation, compounding the sense of going it alone. Judges also cannot “take off the robe” in every day interactions outside the courthouse because of their elevated status in society, which can contribute to social isolation. Additional stressors include re-election in certain jurisdictions. Limited judicial resources coupled with time-intensive, congested dockets are a pronounced problem. More recently, judges have reported a sense of diminishment in their estimation among the public at large. Even the most astute, conscientious, and collected judicial officer can struggle to keep these issues in perspective.

We further recognize that many judges have the same reticence in seeking help out of the same fear of embarrassment and occupational repercussions that lawyers have. The public nature of the bench often heightens the sense of peril in coming forward. Many judges, like lawyers, have a strong sense of perfectionism and believe they must display this perfectionism at all times. Judges’ staff can act as protectors or enablers of problematic behavior. These are all impediments to seeking help. In addition, lawyers, and even a judge’s colleagues, can be hesitant to report or refer a judge whose behavior is problematic for fear of retribution.

In light of these barriers and the stressors inherent in the unique role judges occupy in the legal system, we make the following recommendations to enhance well-being among members of the judiciary.

Recommendations for Judges

Communicate That Well-Being Is A Priority

The highest court in each state should set the tone for the importance of the well-being of judges. Judges are not immune from suffering from the same stressors as lawyers, and additional stressors are unique to work as a jurist.

Develop Policies for Impaired Judges

It is essential that the highest court and its commission on judicial conduct implement policies and procedures for intervening with impaired members of the judiciary. For example, the highest court should consider adoption of policies such as a Diversion Rule for Judges in appropriate cases. Administrative and chief judges also should implement policies and procedures for intervening with members of the judiciary who are impaired in compliance with Model Rule of Judicial Conduct 2.14. They should feel comfortable referring members to judicial or lawyer assistance programs. Educating judicial leaders about the confidential nature of these programs will go a long way in this regard. Judicial associations and educators also should promote CoLAP’s judicial peer support network, as well as the National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges.

Reduce the Stigma of Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

As reflected in Recommendation 4, the stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders poses an obstacle to treatment. Judges are undisputed leaders in the legal profession. We recommend they work to reduce this stigma by creating opportunities for open dialogue. Simply talking about these issues helps combat the unease and discomfort that causes the issues to remain unresolved. In a similar vein, we encourage judges to participate in the activities of lawyer assistance programs, such as volunteering as speakers and serving as board members. This is a powerful way to convey to lawyers, law students, and other judges the importance of lawyer assistance programs and to encourage them to access the programs’ resources.

Conduct Judicial Well-Being Surveys

This report was triggered in part by the Study and the Survey of Law Student Well-Being. No comparable research has been conducted of the judiciary. We recommend that CoLAP and other concerned entities conduct a broad-based survey of the judiciary to determine the state of well-being and the prevalence of issues directly related to judicial fitness such as burnout, compassion fatigue, mental health, substance use disorders and help-seeking behaviors.

Provide Well-Being Programming for Judges and Staff

Judicial associations should invite lawyer assistance program directors and other well-being experts to judicial conferences who can provide programming on topics related to self-care as well as resources available to members of the judiciary experiencing mental health or substance use disorders. Topics could include burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, strategies to maintain well-being, as well as identification of and intervention for mental health and substance use disorders.

Judicial educators also should make use of programming that allows judges to engage in mutual support and sharing of self-care strategies. One such example is roundtable discussions held as part of judicial conferences or establishing a facilitated mentoring program or mentoring circle for judicial members. We have identified isolation as a significant challenge for many members of the judiciary. Roundtable discussions and mentoring programs combat the detrimental effects of this isolation.[1]

Judicial associations and educators also should develop publications and resources related to well-being, such as guidebooks. For example, a judicial association could create wellness guides such as “A Wellness Guide for Judges of the California State Courts.” This sends the signal that thought leaders in the judiciary value well-being.

[1] For more information on judicial roundtables, see Am. Bar Ass’n Comm’n on Law. Assistance Programs, Judicial Roundtables, available at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_Judicial_Roundtable_Protocols.authcheckdam.pdf.

Monitor for Impaired Lawyers and Partner with Lawyer Assistance Programs

Judges often are among the first to detect lawyers suffering from an impairment. Judges know when a lawyer is late to court regularly, fails to appear, or appears in court under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They witness incomprehensible pleadings or cascading requests for extensions of time. We believe judges have a keen pulse on when a lawyer needs help. With the appropriate training, judges’ actions can reduce client harm and save a law practice or a life. We make the following recommendations tailored to helping judges help the lawyers appearing before them.

Consistent with Recommendation 5.1, judges should become familiar with lawyer assistance programs in their state. They should learn how best to make referrals to the program. They should understand the confidentiality protections surrounding these referrals. Judges also should invite lawyer assistance programs to conduct educational programming for lawyers in their jurisdiction using their courtroom or other courthouse space. Judges, for example, can devote a bench-bar luncheon at the courthouse to well-being and invite representatives of the lawyers assistance program to the luncheon.

Judicial educators should include a section in bench book-style publications dedicated to lawyer assistance programs and their resources, as well as discussing how to identify and handle lawyers who appear to have mental health or substance use disorders. Further, judges and their staff should learn the signs of mental health and substance use disorders, as well as strategies for intervention, to assist lawyers in their courtrooms who may be struggling with these issues. Judges can also advance the well-being of lawyers who appear before them by maintaining courtroom decorum and de-escalating the hostilities that litigation often breeds.