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Judicial Stress and Resiliency: Research and Recommendations

Judicial-Resiliance

By Joan Bibelhausen


In the past five years, our profession has taken accelerated responsibility for attending to the consequences of a stressful world. The work of Patrick Krill and others is rightfully credited for jump starting this recognition of the realities and impacts of a stressful profession. Following the 2016 articleThe Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys (lawyer study), The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change was released, offering 44 recommendations for 7 groups of stakeholders. One of those groups was the judiciary and recommendations included a survey that would allow comparison with the 2016 attorney study. The results of that judicial survey, completed by over 1000 judges nationwide, were published in December 2020.

Stress and Resiliency in the US Judiciary (ABA Journal of the Professional Lawyer) called attention to mental health and substance use issues as well as causes of stress. With the benefit of our profession’s response to earlier studies, its focus transferred to identifying impacts of stress, methods for attending to that stress and recommendations for a large group of stakeholders. The judicial branch interacts with a myriad of entities and individuals, all charged with making the system work. All must take responsibility for helping judges and those around them to effectively carry out their duties.

The judicial survey was conducted pre-Covid, but as was noted in the article, between the survey and publication, judges and the judicial system faced unprecedented stress and tests of their resilience. Not only did we face issues such as a pandemic, racial justice reckoning, election issues and economic challenges as a society, the judiciary was where we could rely on reason, not emotion. That is a heavy burden, and our experience was that this burden had been borne with integrity, resolve, and acceptance. As stated in the article, “It is our intention in this article to demonstrate the critical importance of resiliency to members of our judiciary and to our system of justice and to offer methods for engaging in those practices. We stand by these recommendations and suggest that they are, and will continue to be, absolutely essential as our judges play a pivotal role in our nation’s recovery.”

Results

Like the lawyer study, judges were surveyed about alcohol use and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, the results were higher than average. Judges use alcohol in unhealthy ways at a higher rate than the general population, but at a lower rate than lawyers. Even though the survey was anonymous, the authors recognized that alcohol use may have been underreported because of the potential consequences or as with similar surveys, some who may engage in drinking at an unhealthy level, do not recognize it as a problem. For the lawyer study, newer and younger lawyers had rates of use nearly twice that of the total. Given that one becomes a judge later in life, the numbers of lawyers and judges of similar ages may be much closer. Because the consequences of a judge’s problematic drinking may be more public, and have an impact on public perception and reputation, the article recommended increased emphasis on alcohol education fir the judiciary. 

The judicial survey identified top stressors and their impact. From this, the authors found significant evidence of indicators for depression and anxiety that were in some ways similar and some different than for lawyers.

The top five stressors for judges were:

  1. Importance/impact of decisions
  2. Heavy docket of cases
  3. Unprepared attorneys
  4. Self-represented litigants
  5. Dealing repeatedly with the same parties without addressing underlying issues

Additional stressors are more relevant in the past 18 months. Isolation among judges has long been recognized as a source of stress and threat to well-being. Well-respected judicial scholar Isaiah Zimmerman chronicled the reality and effects of judicial isolation in an essay for Court Review in Winter 2000, Isolation in the Judicial Career, that has become the backbone of judicial resilience efforts in the ensuing years. Judges noted that upon appointment they lost their first names and their circle of lawyer friends. The need to always be neutral, and to always be “on” in all public situations resulted in a loss of privacy and connections. including in social situations. Even old friends display deference, which can result in the loss of meaningful connections. There are fewer ways to ask for feedback without the fear of feeling like an imposter. The move to remote courtrooms out of a den or basement exacerbates this isolation, as well as the top five sources of stress.

The article reported on the effect of stress on respondents. The top five were:

  1. Fatigue/low energy after hearing several cases in a row
  2. Sleep disturbance (insufficient sleep, awakenings, daytime drowsiness)
  3. Interference with attention and concentration; tend to be distracted
  4. Ruminate or worry about cases after they have been decided
  5. Increased health concerns (high blood pressure, etc.)

It was particularly notable that over a third of the judges reported sleep disturbances. Effects on concentration were also reported and both can result in decreased judgment. 

The impact of stress, in addition to symptoms of depression and anxiety is even more important when we recognize that judges are held to high standards, by themselves and others, for being attentive, capable, and alert. When these very qualities are challenged by physical problems such as lack of sleep, the inclination is self-protection and secrecy. It becomes harder to admit a problem and ask for help because shame increases. 2.2% of the judges reported thoughts of self-injury or suicide in the past year. While statistically this number seems small, the difficulty of reaching out for help due to isolation and reputation are cause for concern and suicide awareness education is strongly recommended. 

When reviewing the impact of stress on gender, women reported higher overall rates of stress. The impact of stress on men tended toward externalizing factors such as anger, cynicism, and irritability. For women these factors were more internal including sadness, feelings of hopelessness, and fatigue.

Judges were asked to place a value on stress management and resilience building activities and practices. They were also asked to indicate the frequency with which they engaged in these practices. There were significant disparities in those that were endorsed and those that were used. Several can be directly tied to isolation. They include confiding in a colleague (more difficult during a pandemic and yet this is shown to be the strongest way to mitigate the impact of secondary trauma), seeking professional help, and meaningful relationships outside of the judiciary. 

Recommendations

Overall, the recommendations called on all stakeholders to recognize the value of self-care and early action when challenges arise. The authors stated, “many judges do take affirmative steps to protect their health and build their resilience. To bring forth systemic and sustained improvement to the well-being of the judiciary as a whole, however, the burden cannot rest solely on the shoulders of individual judicial officers. Nor will this ambitious task be attained through exercise and healthy eating alone. Instead, entities charged with governance, regulation, education, and support of judges must lead these efforts.”

Thus, the article offered focused recommendations for court leaders, regulators, judicial educators, judicial member organizations, judges, and lawyers assistance programs (such as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers) and individual judges. Each is called upon to accept responsibility for sharing this information, supporting a conversation about these challenges and recommendations, and helping our judicial system to work as it should. 

In conclusion, the article stated, “[t]he elements necessary to be an effective judge—logical decision-making, focus, and memory—are affected by the stress and emotional depletion often experienced by many judges as this survey indicates. It is critical to judicial performance that tactics bolstering resiliency and mitigating stress are embraced by the judiciary and key stakeholders.” The survey and article clearly show that these are shared experiences and responsibilities. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers will always be available to help support our judicial officers so they can do their best work.

 


JoanBibelhausen 120Joan Bibelhausen is Executive Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and a co-author of Stress and Resiliency in the US Judiciary (ABA 2020). She welcomes the opportunity to discuss or provide a presentation on the details of this important research. 
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