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May 2005Volume 35Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Judges need hugs too: Insights into judicial stress

Judges have it easy. We arrive late, take two-hour lunch breaks, leave early and, when it suits our fancy, take time to don our black robes and reign, arbitrarily and capriciously, in courtrooms where our word is law, at least until it is reviewed by a higher court. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but what is truly alarming is how many of you readers are out there, winking and nodding at my words. It seems not so long ago that I was a practicing attorney myself, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and having to answer to clients, my secretary, clerks, bailiffs, assorted court staff, and judges, not necessarily in that order. The civilized, introspective, quiet—even seemingly slothful—life of a judge seemed, by comparison, a walk in the park. Having now served on the New Hampshire Superior Court for over 13 years, preceded by a three-year term on the State’s District Court, I feel compelled to set the record straight, to grant a peek at the other side of the bench, and in so doing discuss some of the stressors that affect the quality of life for judges and by implication for lawyers as well. It is only through an understanding of these stressors that we can begin to control them.

Scheduling issues cause as much stress for judges as they do for lawyers. The old joke that the clerk holds the true seat of power in the courthouse is derived from truth. Judges have precious little control over their own daily schedules. We may confer with the clerk, we may arrange our vacation time or organize the days on which we do motions hearings or hear particularly complex cases, but by and large, the clerk sets our work schedule and we hear whatever is assigned to us on a particular day. Just as lawyers are scheduled by their secretaries, sometimes efficiently and sometimes not, judges are likewise scheduled by their clerks. A wise colleague of mine, now retired, referred to himself simply as “a laborer, toiling in the vineyards of justice.” Most of the time, that is exactly how it feels.

Work volume is another stressor that neither lawyers nor the public consider when casting a glance at the “glamour job” of running a courtroom. Much of a judge’s work is done in chambers, in the library, in times of solitary contemplation, research, and writing. Despite the best possible camaraderie and working conditions, there is an inherent tension between clerk and judge in processing backlogs and sometimes overwhelming caseloads. In our fast food world, the administrator’s job is to move as many burgers out the door as possible, while the judge must ascertain that those burgers are cooked well. The tension develops as clerks seek to close out cases and judges slow the process down in the interest of doing justice; not that the clerks are not interested in justice, but their concerns—and rightly so—are geared more toward docket management. This tension has revealed itself on many stressful and over-scheduled mornings when I turn to my clerk and ask, “You want fries with that Order?” However, as former Chief Justice G. Joseph Tauro of Massachusetts has said, “No judge has the privilege of painting a Mona Lisa in his chambers while a thousand litigants wait in the corridors.” The tension between quality and efficiency is a constant in every judge’s workday.

State and federal budget shortfalls can impact the judge in much the same way that cash flow deficits generate stress in major law firms and solo law offices. Most often, the judge has no control over statewide hiring freezes or lay-offs, which affect her own staff and threaten courthouse morale as fewer people strain to process more cases. Additionally, this may cause delays of days or weeks in mailing out the judge’s orders, and so, despite the judge’s immediate attention to the case, such clerical delays raise the hue and cry from litigants that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

The care and handling of jurors rests fully on the judge’s shoulders. Judges instruct juries, choose jurors through the voir dire process, consider excuses and release jurors, and control the jurors’ schedules through case  management as the trial progresses. Judges are keenly aware that they are utilizing the time of conscripted citizens and that it is their responsibility that the juror’s experience be a meaningful one, as well as one in which justice is done for the litigants. In jurisdictions where judges are elected, we hear that old adage ringing in our ears, “Remember, they’re not just jurors— they’re VOTERS!” No judge wants to keep a room full of jurors waiting while her morning motions hearings drone on past their allotted time. At the same time, those motions hearings may be crucial to the advancement of other litigation, and the judge must afford them the time necessary to resolve these interim legal disputes. Another tension develops as the judge must apportion time wisely. In my own personal experience, this sort of tension generally develops right between my shoulder blades.

Keeping in mind that most judges have spent at least a portion of their careers as courtroom litigators, we run headlong into our next stressor: judicial temperament and restraint. As advocates, attorneys become accustomed to speaking their piece as eloquently as possible. They push the bounds of civility into argument, always seeking to further their client’s cause with their articulate and persuasive rhetoric. Judges coming from this litigation background—and most judges are not wallflowers—must continually suppress their tendencies to pontificate, whether that is from the bench or as it relates to extra-judicial speech, which is even more closely restrained by the code of judicial conduct. At least one judge in New Hampshire has a small sign taped to his bench that only he can see. It reads “KYDMS” (Keep Your Damn Mouth Shut) as a daily reminder to hold his tongue.

Chief Justice Rehnquist has been quoted as saying, “A judge is bound to decide each case fairly, in accord with the relevant facts and the applicable law even when the decision is not the one the home crowd wants.” Judges are often criticized and even ridiculed for decisions that are not popular with the press or the public, the legislature or the executive branch. Some of these attacks may be warranted and some may be unwarranted, but all are stressful to the judge; especially when the judge has taken extra care and time to analyze the issues involved. It takes courage and fortitude to handle this kind of recurring stress.

Finally, the principles to which judges aspire and what is expected of them on a daily basis set nearly impossibly high standards for human beings. C. S. Claxton and P. H. Murrell, in their 1992 monograph “Education for Development: Principles and Practices in Judicial Education” have set forth a number of general expectations for highly developed judges. Judges should be tough-minded and warmhearted, have the capacity to remain open-minded yet see below the surface of issues, withhold judgment until all relevant information is in, be decisive and firm, be able to explain their legal reasoning, manage their workload efficiently, keep a perspective on the court and their role in it, possess self-confidence and a sense of competence, both tempered by humility, be aware of legal principles and of the fruits of their legal training, be at ease with themselves and open and empathetic to others while taking the perspective of different players in the judicial process, honor the traditions and fundamental fairness of the law in our society, be sensitive to issues of gender and race, and provide leadership. Simply reading this list of superlatives is stressful. Above all, a judge must maintain her integrity and the dignity of the judicial process. The judge is continually aspiring to these goals and is always aware that her decisions have a profound effect on the people appearing in her courtroom as well as the community at large.

The initial premise is that, with rare exceptions, all judges and lawyers want, at the very least, to perform their jobs well. In most cases, we desire to excel; after all, lawyers and judges were once "Type A" law students burning the midnight oil and striving to determine how many legal angels could dance on the head of a pin. We bring this quest for success with us to our later careers. It is not a surprising metamorphosis when that overburdened law student transforms into a zealous advocate until he or she finally emerges, resplendent in judicial robes. Throughout our careers in the law, we are taught that one of the hallmarks of the legal profession is its code of ethics and we meticulously enforce that code within our ranks, as does no other business or profession. However, the very ethical rules that we strive to uphold are those that constrain our conversations, prohibit public communications, restrict participation in charitable and political organizations, and serve to set judges atop the ivory towers that isolate them from both the attorneys who practice in their courts and the communities in which they live. In our attempt to remain neutral and dispassionate magistrates, we become remote. Few understand or appreciate these restrictions in a judge’s daily life; does it make any rational sense to your old Kiwanis buddies that you can no longer actively participate in their fundraising duties or to the Little League booster club that, while you may still be able to dish up nachos at the snackshack, you may no longer take the $2 as payment from the hungry baseball fans? The only rationale we can provide to our friends is that we must scrupulously restrict any possibility that we are using our influence as judicial officers to pressure contributions to our favorite charities. And so it begins. We have become aloof; the community begins to see us as exalted and remote.

The manner in which we deal with stress on the job determines in large part our quality of life generally, whether we are lawyers or judges, plumbers or CEOs, teachers or doctors. The stressors peculiar to a judge’s work life, as outlined herein, require careful and constant management to enable the judge to walk out on that bench each day, level the playing field, and dispense justice impartially.

Collegial support is crucial for judges. The understanding and empathy of our colleagues can help to ease the pain of a particularly barbed editorial and general discussions of legal principles at lunch can help to give a judge essential reality checks during stressful trials. Judges who work in single-judge courthouses should make it a point to keep in telephone or e-mail communications with their colleagues in other communities; listserves and message boards can be helpful to expand a judge’s (or a lawyer’s) perspectives on new developments in the law as well as their reactions to daily stress.

Continuing education, and the opportunity to express oneself in a “safe” academic environment, is a resource often used by judges to improve performance while at the same time renewing the spirit. Since the work of a judge is sedentary, many judges find it helpful to make time for regular exercise or athletic hobbies in their lives. Some judges devote themselves in some manner to religious or spiritual growth in order to help cope with their responsibilities. Involvement in community and charitable activities are other traditional ways most people alleviate stress, but as we have discussed, a judge’s role in such activities is limited and “giving back to the community” is not easily accomplished when fund-raising is constricted. Maintaining close personal friendships and family ties are important to all of us; judges, however, will find their circle of friends circumscribed by ethical codes as their lawyer pals who now appear before them in court will drift further away. Hence, the chance to network amongst other judges and lawyers in collegial organizations like Bar Associations and the American Inns of Court provides judges with an invaluable outlet for stress, in that sharing work-related issues even in a general way, release some of that tension. Judges, in particular, can gain some sense of “giving back to the community” through mentoring younger lawyers in an Inns of Court setting.

Judges are not superhuman, but we recognize the importance of the work we do. We seek balance in our lives, as do lawyers, accountants and nurses. We experience the same kinds of daily stress as anyone else: car pools, groceries, cell-phone bills, personal family issues, daycare crises, and health problems. We are subject to the foibles and weaknesses that torment all mankind: alcoholism, drug abuse, and the seven deadly sins. We are generally ordinary human beings striving to do extraordinary work—work that is based on lofty ideals and constitutional principles. We deal with our stress in a myriad number of ways. Sometimes we just need a hug.


The Honorable Patricia C. Coffey is a superior court judge in New Hampshire, where she juggles her docket, service on several statewide committees, and a family life. Judge Coffey is a member of the Charles C. Doe American Inn of Court in Newington, New Hampshire, and the Suffolk University Law School Litigation American Inn of Court in Boston, Massachusetts, and also serves on the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees.

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