When a tea kettle whistles from mounting pressure, we all know to take the kettle off the burner or to turn down the heat. Yet, when a legal colleague shows obvious wear from stress and has difficulty performing job duties or repeatedly lashes out, we often pretend not to notice the “whistle of the tea kettle” or hope it will go away on its own. The ostrich approach, however, rarely works and can lead to significant ethical issues.
As an advisor to Indiana’s judges , I see three common areas in which a judge’s reactions to stress can produce ethical problems:
- A judge becomes dilatory issuing rulings or scheduling hearings because she is dealing with stress from medical, family, or personal problems;
- A judge develops an inappropriate work demeanor because he is dealing with stressful issues at home or work; or
- A judge exhibits signs of abusing alcohol, or other substances, because he has turned to these substances as a way to cope with stress.
Early detection and intervention could solve each of these problems and avoid the need for judicial discipline. Too many judges, however, are afraid or unwilling to ask for help, and colleagues are uncomfortable confronting an affected judge. The purpose of this article is to encourage judges and lawyers to change this way of thinking and to examine the Trial Rules and Rules in the Code of Judicial Conduct, which encourage early intervention.
Stress Leading to Dilatory Practices
The “dilatory judge” situation usually comes to my attention when a supervising/chief judge discovers that another judicial officer has a significant and unreasonable case backlog and calls seeking advice on whether he has an ethical duty to report the situation under Rule 2.15 of the Code of Judicial Conduct (he does). The supervising/chief judge often is sympathetic to the affected judge because the judge’s delays initially occur when dealing with personal stress and then the situation snowballs while the affected judge tries to catch up. Unfortunately, by the time such situations reach my desk, it often is too late to avoid the disciplinary process, as the delays involved are significant and numerous or litigants have suffered appreciable harm due to the judge’s delays.
From the affected judge’s perspective, rather than hoping that he can later “catch up” on delayed work, the following are better ways to handle the situation:
- Communicate with colleagues when falling behind so other judges in the county can provide temporary assistance with the docket or requests can be made for additional senior judge days.
- Contact the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP) or seek other counseling to address underlying issues.
- When taking matters under advisement during stressful periods, ask parties if they will agree to an extended time to rule per Trial Rule 53.1(B)(2). In many instances, parties and attorneys will be supportive of such requests, as they can plan future behavior when they know when to expect a ruling.
- In extreme situations, petition the Supreme Court, per Trial Rule 53(D), to extend the time to rule on certain matters.
An even better idea is for judges in a county to collectively address the potential for work slowdowns when it is apparent that a judge’s personal issues could take up a lot of the judge’s time (i.e. significant surgery scheduled with prolonged recovery period). Preventive measures, such as arranging for senior judges or judges pro tempore to preside when the judicial officer will be absent, are much easier to effect than remedial measures once a backlog occurs.
Stress Leading to Inappropriate Demeanor and Substance Abuse Issues
Everyone has bad days, but when life’s stressors lead to recurring unacceptable behavior, it’s time to ask for help. Rule 2.14 of the Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to take “appropriate action” when they see that a judicial colleague is suffering from some mental, emotional, or physical problem which is affecting the colleague’s performance or when substance abuse is detected. Approaching a colleague whose behavior has noticeably changed may be difficult, but it is a kinder alternative. Sometimes an affected judge may not realize the behavior changes and will appreciate a supportive colleague’s candor.
Other times, an affected judge may resist acknowledging the problem or may be difficult to approach. A detecting judge can take appropriate action by making a confidential referral to JLAP. This agency can be a valuable resource, both for the affected judge or for colleagues seeking to get an affected judge to recognize that he needs help. Trained JLAP staff not only can provide assistance, referrals, or suggest a mentor, who may be a current or former judge for an affected judge, but they also can provide helpful advice to colleagues about how to approach a resistant affected judge.
However, judges who make referrals to JLAP should remember that the agency has no enforcement authority if an affected judge does not comply with JLAP’s recommendations. In these situations, if the affected judge’s inappropriate conduct continues, a detecting judge likely will need to contact the Qualifications Commission to comply with his ethical obligations under Rule 2.15 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Even then, it is better for both the affected judge and the community to notify the Commission before a formal complaint is filed. Although the affected judge may be subject to discipline, sometimes the Qualifications Commission’s involvement is the wake-up call that an affected judicial officer needs to recognize that he requires treatment. If the affected judge is cooperative, the Commission often considers such compliance as a mitigating circumstance when determining how to resolve an ethical matter.
Stress in the legal field is a given, and all judges will experience it in some fashion. Bad reactions to stress, however, don’t have to spell the end of a career. Requesting and accepting help when needed isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strong character and a commitment to the integrity of the judicial system.