By Miller, Monica K.; Flores, David M. | Judicature, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview


Miller, Monica K., Flores, David M., Judicature

Courtrooms can be stressful places; legal actors and courthouse visitors experience occasional acts of violence, gruesome trial evidence, and a number of daily, low-level stressors. Each of these sources has the potential to affect both judges and jurors.

In June of 2006, Darren Mack allegedly shot Judge Chuck Weller through his Washoe County, Nevada, courthouse office window. Reportedly, Mack was dissatisfied with Weller's decisions concerning child support and alimony.1 Violence directed at judges and their families represents a growing phenomenon; violent events of 2005 include the highly publicized shooting at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta and the murder of federal judge Joan Lefkow's family in Chicago. As a result of the growing threats of violence, judges in some jurisdictions are canying concealed weapons,2 and writers (e.g., critics, advocates, journalists) have called for measures to examine and address the issue of courtroom violence.3

These unexpected stressors contribute to the significant sources of stress judges and jurors routinely experience. For example, experts have acknowledged that graphic evidence and testimony is capable of having adverse effects.4 Recent high profile cases include that of Dena Schlosser, who was accused of cutting her baby's arms off with a knife, and the retrial of Andrea Yates, who faced capital murder charges for the drowning of her five children. These cases not only contain gruesome evidence, but also may prove traumatic to the judge and jurors who attempt to comprehend such acts. The decision-making process may be especially stressful if judges or jurors are asked to apply laws that conflict with their personal beliefs.5

Judges and jurors also experience stress due to more mundane aspects of the trial process.6 Jurors can experience stress as a result of the disruption of their daily routines. Judges can experience stress due to the responsibilities of trial management. These examples illustrate the variety of courtroom stressors. High levels of stress have the potential to affect the decision making of jurors and judges and have a generally negative effect on the justice system.

This article describes courtroom stress and recommends possible remedies. It first presents a definition of stress and an explanation of why it is important to study courtroom stress. Next, it discusses the causes and symptoms of stress experienced by judges and jurors. After speculating about how stress can affect legal decision making, it describes the various remedies that have been proposed to address or prevent such stress. It concludes with recommendations for reducing stress in the courtroom.

Definition of stress

The concept of stress has been defined in an array of different ways.7 Different aspects, including precipitating events, psychological and physiological responses, and appraisals of the individual, have been differentially emphasized in the varying conceptualizations. The biopsychosocial model provides an integrative account of stress by incorporating the psychological, biological, and behavioral effects of environmental demands. Cohen, Kressler, and Gordon posit that when confronted with environmental challenges, people cognitively appraise whether the event represents a threat and/ or overwhelms available coping resources.8 Perceptions of stress result when environmental demands are deemed threatening and coping resources are regarded as challenged or even insufficient.

This perception of, and attempt to adapt to, the stress-inducing environmental demands are accompanied by behavioral, emotional, and physiological changes in the individual. This biopsychosocial model complements the foregoing examination of courtroom stress, which considers both the causes of stress (i.e., stressors) and its manifestations (i.e., symptoms) for judges and jurors and the subsequent implications for the justice system.

While stress can certainly reach extreme or abnormal levels, it is important to note that a lower level of stress is part of a normal reaction to an environment that taxes one's ability to cope. …

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