Addressing Disability and Promoting Wellness in the Federal Courts

Article excerpt

The Ninth Circuit's Wellness Committee provides resources for judges that help promote their health and well-being.

The clerk had started to notice that, at times, the esteemed judge whom she had served far years wasn't tracking or retaining information as easily as he used to. Occasionally forgetful in court, he had begun to ask for pieces of information that had already been presented. He now needed more help from his staff to stay on top of details. The judge's forgetfulness and occasional lack of mental clarity was alarming and seemed to be getting progressively worse. The clerk also worried about the amount of time it was taking him to produce decisions. What should the clerk do? What were her responsibilities in this situation? Who could she call for advice?

The number of programs in place to assist impaired legal professionals has roughly tripled during the past 20 years. Nearly every state now has an assistance program for lawyers experiencing personal problems that often impact professional conduct, particularly substance abuse. While many of these programs also extend services to judges, few court systems have established assistance programs specifically for judicial officers. One program exists at the federal level, the Ninth Circuit's Private Assistance Line Service (PALS), begun in 2001 by the Office of the Circuit Executive upon the recommendation of the Judicial Disability Task Force of the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit. Now under the direction of the Ninth Circuit Wellness Committee, PALS focuses upon the common problems that negatively impact judicial performance. Although designed to effectively respond to judicial disability and to promote health and well-being for all Ninth Circuit judges, in practice much of the focus is on the special needs of senior judges.

Reliance on senior judges

In subtle and some not so subtle ways, the federal judiciary has become increasingly dependent upon judges over age 65 to handle a rapidly growing caseload. As was reported in a Ninth Circuit task force report:

The judiciary needs these judges to continue working, because the number of authorized judicial officers has not kept pace with increasing case loads. There also are many judicial vacancies, some of which have existed for several years. Hence, unlike any other professional model that the task force could find, the federal judiciary encourages, and is dependent on, men and women over the age of 65 to handle its crushing caseloads. (Final Report of the Judicial Disability Task Force of the Ninth Circuit Judicial Council, May 2000)

Few federal judges choose to retire when they become eligible, even though most would continue to receive their full salary. Instead, the majority take what is called "senior status," wherein they retain every aspect of their office but have the option to carry a smaller caseload. An analysis of the 556 Article III judges nationwide who were eligible to retire in 1999 revealed that 65 remained active (full caseloads), 442 took senior status, and only 49 chose to retire. As a consequence, the average age on the federal bench is nearing 70 and is considerably higher than in most state courts. This fact has a profound impact upon the frequency of age-related problems that arise in this population of judicial officers.

The Disability Task Force

The Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit recognized that the health of its judiciary merited special attention. For this reason, committees of the Judicial Council began studying the important connection between health and judicial performance. In 1999, then-Chief Judge Procter Hug, Jr. appointed the Task Force on Judicial Disability to consider formal and informal methods of addressing judicial disabilities. The ambitious mission of the task force was to:

* Review and recommend any necessary changes to the Judicial Councils Reform and Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, 28 U. …