A Fresh Look at Judicial Impairment

Judicature, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview
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A Fresh Look at Judicial Impairment


It is time to recognize that judges face the same challenges to their physical, mental, and emotional health as do other members of society, and that their unique position in society renders the provision of assistance in meeting those challenges critically important.

The problems of impairment due to alcoholism, other addictions, depression or other mental health issues, and of declining mental acuity due to age afflict people in all segments of society, including the judiciary. The administrative, social and political structure within which judges operate, however, can make it difficult to recognize and deal effectively with these problems. Public confidence in the judiciary is seriously undermined when these issues are ignored.

Rather than wait until a judge's DWI arrest or bizarre behavior makes the news, courts should have in place resources that make it as simple as possible for judges to obtain help. Policies and practices should afford sympathetic support to a judge with an addiction or disability as long as the judge, too, acknowledges the necessity of finding a remedy. Judicial collegiality needs to be redefined so that looking the other way to avoid embarrassment or confrontation is no longer acceptable, and intervention is expected and encouraged.

Education about the availability of programs and information about other wellness issues needs to be provided in new judge education and regularly reiterated at judicial meetings in substantive sessions rather than just a five-minute reminder. Handbooks, websites, and newsletters can keep the issue from being pushed to the bottom of the agenda until the next headline. There should also be outreach to family members who may be struggling with how to obtain help for their judicial relative. Judges with supervisory authority should receive intensive training about how to intervene after receiving complaints about a judge's behavior. Staff and attorneys need to be encouraged to bring their concerns to the appropriate authorities while a confidential solution is still possible rather than to cover up a judge's behavior until there is a public scandal.

The presence of an assistance program does not eliminate the possibility of judicial discipline as the incentive that may finally force judges to commit to treatment and as the vehicle for a judge to make amends by restoring public confidence. Appropriate confidentiality rules and procedures for the conduct commissions and assistance programs will foster a cooperative relationship between the two groups that will both assist judges and protect the public.

Several times in the last few decades, courts across the country have admitted they had a problem - the appearance of gender or racial bias, for example - and applied themselves to solving it through study, education, and sustained policy and procedural change. Recent innovations to meet the challenges raised by the increasing number of pro se litigants also demonstrate the ability of courts to successfully tackle a dilemma once they choose to confront it.

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