The Institute for Judicial Studies by Jason Boog
email@example.com - July 2, 2008
Judges are expected to be fair but firm, empathetic but efficient. But with a crushing workload and an often ungrateful public, what happens when a member of the bench reaches the breaking point? A special report on the mental health of the judiciary.
Thirty years ago, Saratoga County Supreme Court Justice Loren N. Brown made a decision that still haunts him in retirement.
In 1977, the then-County Court Judge was assigned to a Family Court case to help ease docket congestion. It became what he calls the “most difficult case” of his career.
County officials had removed eight-year-old Joseph Hofbauer from his parents’ care, initiating a tempestuous custody case. The boy had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, but his father wouldn’t allow him to receive the surgery and chemotherapy regimen that doctors recommended — a medical decision that County authorities called child neglect.
According to the judge, experts testified that conventional therapies for the boy’s illness had an 85-percent survival rate. Nevertheless, the father had opted for controversial Laetrile treatments for cancer, an unorthodox technique that had been outlawed in New York State.
“I determined that the father had the right to make the decision,” the judge recounted in a recent interview by phone. He is now of counsel to the Saratoga Springs firm, Snyder, Kiley, Toohey, Corbett & Cox. “It was very unpleasant. I’d get calls at home, but when a case is pending you can’t discuss it. It developed a media frenzy.”
In the wake of national press attention, the boy’s family moved to the Bahamas to continue the unconventional treatments. In two years, the boy died — and the coroner ruled that Hodgkin’s disease was the cause.
Despite the tragic outcome, the retired jurist said he feels he made the right decision. Two appellate courts upheld his ruling, and the case is still cited in family law opinions.
“You accept the responsibility, you have to do it. To be a good judge, you have to be decisive,” he said. “You have to be reflective, but there’s a tendency in some to be over-reflective. [Still] it hasn’t left me yet. I still reflect on it, I still dwell on it.”
In an interview, Brown explained that he never sought professional counseling during his career. “I lived with the stress. It didn’t have any long-term effects. You take on these jobs, and people live with the stress. I didn’t need any counseling.”
The haunting memory of the case illustrates one of the unique anxieties of the judiciary: a judge can make the correct legal decision in a Family Court or Criminal Court, but people close to the case can still suffer, or even die.
In addition, judges cope with a mix of public visibility and expectation that is unique to their roles in society. When judges face the same problems that plague other individuals — like serious chemical imbalances, say, or marital problems — those problems are amplified by the mutually exclusive imperatives of being deliberative and fair, on the one hand, and maintaining order and efficiency, on the other.
And hard as that is, the inherent isolation of the position — plus a jurist’s knowledge that he or she is often under public siege or physical threat — can make them yet more brittle.
Judicial Reports spoke with a number of state judges and administrators, cataloguing the singular problems that judges endure. They mentioned judicial workload pressures, family problems, financial burdens from the ongoing pay-raise debacle, and press scrutiny. All of which raises the question — when judges get the blues, where can they go for help?
EXPECTATIONS BREED REMORSE
Dr. Isaiah M. Zimmerman, a psychiatrist who works at the Washington School of Psychiatry, a non-profit institute in Washington, D.C., has been studying problems specific to jurists for 30 years. He pinpointed Judge Brown’s dilemma in an interview, limning the psychological fault lines of the judiciary.
“There are two sides to [being a judge]. One is the personal side — being conscientious people that they are witness to a tragedy — a human life gone awry. They have compassion and empathy even though they are following the law,” said the psychiatrist.
“[The other] is the public side. The public, through the press, ‘judges’ whether the sentence or judgment was fair. There is a lot of reaction and pressure that judges need to get used to for cases that are sensationalized and publicized.”
Where Judge Brown was able to endure his psychological watershed on his own, another judge wasn’t so lucky. The State’s most infamous case of judicial breakdown illustrates how hard one prominent judge worked to hide his struggles with mental illness.
In 1992, federal authorities caught then-Chief Judge Sol Wachtler making anonymous threats against his former girlfriend’s family.
The disgraced judge was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and pled guilty to a federal felony of one count of kidnap threat — spending one year in jail for the act. The former judge was recently granted his law license again, and now teaches law at Touro Law Center. He is currently out of the country, and was not available to be interviewed for this story.
But Wachtler recounted his harrowing breakdown in a 1997 Psychology Today interview, revealing how he hid his troubles from his colleagues and the public:
“[M]y vanity was one of the reasons I didn't seek help for my illness. Here I was, a manic depressive. I would check into a hotel room under an assumed name and stay there crying for two days without ever pulling the shade up. My wife, who is a clinical social worker, begged me to get help and told me I was destroying myself. But rather than see a psychiatrist, I got prescriptions for Tenuate [a diet pill], Halcion [a sleeping pill], and Pamelor [an anti-depressant] — all from different doctors. I took more than 1,400 Tenuate and 280 Halcion in a four-month period.”
WORKLOAD AND ISOLATION
Public perception might be destructive, but a number of judges and experts cited a another age-old problem that plagues judges — the perpetually overcrowded and understaffed bench.
While many professions suffer from crowded schedules, judges are bound by a double-standard: they are supposed to come to reasoned, calm decisions, but at the same time, expected to cope with overloaded dockets.
In 2007, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct removed Niagara Falls City Court Judge Robert M. Restaino from his post because the judge jailed 46 people in his courtroom after a cellphone interrupted proceedings — a breakdown that a number of experts attributed to overwork.
The judge was represented by Joel Daniels, a Buffalo attorney. While Daniels did not return phone calls for this article, in a previous interview the attorney blamed overwork and marital problems for Restaino’s breakdown.
Click here to read Judicial Reports’s analysis of that case.
The Commission’s decision noted that one Administrative Judge had described Restaino’s Domestic Violence Court docket as “crushing,” raising the theory that the judge “snapped” under these pressures that many judges face. Raul Felder, the former Chair, wrote the lone dissent in the Commission’s decision to remove the judge.
Felder characterized the incident as “two hours of viral lunacy” in a strong judicial career, theorizing that the Commission had downplayed the mental health explanation for the outburst:
“I am constrained to comment on Commission counsel’s attempt to belittle respondent’s explanation that he 'snapped' because of personal stresses in his life. Although Commission counsel argues that such an explanation is not believable because no single triggering event in his personal life had occurred that morning and that prolonged stress cannot explain a temporary loss of reason, I believe that simple human experience has shown that that is simply untrue.”
Despite that plea for clemency, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s finding, keeping Judge Restaino off the bench.
Supreme Court Justice Sharon S. Townsend will never forget working grueling month-long stints in Erie County Family Court’s intake courtroom that saw between 75 and 100 cases on the average bad day in the early 1990’s.
“By the fourth week you were spent and exhausted, not just physically, but emotionally,” she recalled in an interview.
Justice Townsend spent more than 10 years in Family Court, and now serves as Administrative Judge for the Eighth Judicial District. In her opinion, Family Court is still one of the most stressful jobs in the judiciary.
“Basically, after constantly dealing with these traumatic events involving violence, especially with children, you begin to internalize that trauma,” she said in an interview, categorizing that overwhelming emotional identification as “vicarious trauma.”
“You need to recognize it and deal with it — exercise, talking to people, or dealing with it in some other healthy way. You’re bombarded with case after case of horrific experiences that you are hearing about and reading about,” she concluded.
Legal psychiatrist Zimmerman explained that some judges keep these traumas secret, struggling to maintain a public image of temperance and control.
“[Judges] have a feeling that they have to live up to a public image of how much is expected of them and keep up with a caseload no matter how much emotional pressure. When they come to me, they’ve already had a long period of suffering before they got help,” said Zimmerman.
He’s been counseling judges since the 1970’s, writing a number of foundational papers on the unique psychiatric problems of the judiciary.
“The response rate is very low because of this reluctance to be seen — [judges] pass judgment on people’s behavior but they themselves are expected to be invulnerable to human frailty,” he concluded in an interview, comparing judges to members of the clergy.
COMBATING JUDICIAL STRESS IN NEW YORK STATE
Most recently, the New York State Judicial Institute has lead the charge in helping judges find more resources to cope with their unique struggles.
In June, the Institute held the first of three summer judicial seminars to discuss that very issue — part of that group’s continuing education programs for the judiciary. Reporters were excluded from the event, but it featured a lecture by Dr. Zimmerman and gave judges a private forum to discuss their problems.
Two more judicial seminars will touch on this issue during the summer.
In 2001, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye created the New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust, a group that “brings statewide resources and awareness to the prevention and treatment of alcohol and substance abuse among lawyers, judges and law students.” They work in concert with similar programs that are offered by both the American Bar Association and the City and State Bar.
Last year Judge Kaye appointed a 16-judge committee for that organization, focusing on judicial stresses. Currently, the committee is tasked with coming up with “ways to enhance the experience of serving as a judge in New York State,” and they expect to issue a report in 2009.
“Judges face pressures from many sources including increasing caseloads, increasing responsibilities, and in some cases, personal threats,” explained Tompkins County Court John C. Rowley, the judge who has chaired Judge Kaye’s 16-person judicial advisory panel since its inception.
Like most judges, Justice Rowley wouldn’t give specific examples of these judicial woes. He said in his own career, workload was by far the toughest problem he faced. “I was not prepared for the volume of work the job entailed,” he recalled.
Rowley’s sympathy with caseload problems is understandable.
His caseload is unique, as he serves in what the OCA calls a “multi-bench” area, alternating as a County, Surrogate and Family Court judge in his caseload. Rowley was elected to his post, and his term expires in 2010.
For the last 10 years, Canada has offered counseling and psychiatric resources specifically for judges. Unlike New York State’s employee plan, the Judges Counselling Program is contracted to a non-governmental organization that coordinates a countrywide program, keeping the administration out of the actual administration of therapy.
Frank McArdle, the executive director of the Canadian Superior Courts Judges Association, oversees the program. According to this administrator, the program is accessed by 6.2 percent of the 3,200 judges working in Canada last year.
“The whole idea was that there are judges that have problems, who do they turn to?” he said in an interview. “We have the contacts for these particular people, [then] they turn it over to the psychiatrist or counselor. They have a group of people that [judges] contact with no cost for themselves.”
During the program’s 10-year history, these services have been accessed by between 4.2 and 6.2 percent of all judges every year. The program is federally funded, with a surprisingly low price tag. The program began with a $20,000 federal grant, and it now costs $35,000 a year to maintain the services.
“At least people are using it. We have no idea who they are … without it, what would happen to these people?” said McArdle, accessing the anonymous beneficiaries of the counseling program. His office does not track which judges are seeking help, and he declined to comment on the frequency of specific problems in the judiciary.
“Who knows? Maybe it should be 8 percent. At least we know 6.2 percent of them are active,” he concluded.
While New York judges don’t have their own unique system, the State does offer all employees a similar mental-health network. When it comes to counseling and psychiatric help, State judges currently must use the Work-Life Services program, part of the New York State Employee Assistance Program that covers state workers.
That office provides services to help judges (and all state employees) cope with a variety of life issues—everything from alcohol abuse to problem gambling to child-care.