Reducing Judicial Stress through Mentoring

By Bremer, Celeste F. | Judicature, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Reducing Judicial Stress through Mentoring


Bremer, Celeste F., Judicature


A mentoring program can help judges, particularly new judges, deal with the stress and strain inherent in their work.

Newly appointed or elected judges face burgeoning caseloads, backlogs resulting from a time-consuming appointment process, and increasing criminal dockets. They are abruptly thrust into a leadership role upon taking the oath of office and are expected to operate at peak performance from the first day on the job.

The minute they are sworn in, new judges possess the full power and authority of their position. They are expected to be wise, responsible, efficient case managers who are knowledgeable about all aspects of civil and criminal law, as well as local procedures. On their first day on the job, it is not unusual for newjudges to select ajury and proceed with a trial-regardless of any limitations in their trial experience. They may routinely decide weighty matters involving life and death, child custody, domestic violence, complex business relationships, or intellectual property, without any training in these specialized areas. Additionally, they must apply laws that may conflict with their personal values or beliefs. all of these pressures contribute to their occupational stress.

No regular system exists for new judges to receive impartial feedback or otherwise obtain constructive evaluation of their approaches to the daily duties of managing cases, conducting settlement conferences, or performing other difficult tasks. Due to ethical constraints, their sudden metamorphosis-from Perry Mason to Solomon-occurs in relative social isolation. Trial judges report feeling high levels of stress and exhibit strain in various ways, such as expressing annoyance to lawyers and litigants, having trouble making decisions, and experiencing difficulty concentrating.1

Stress and strain

The manifestation of stress, in the form of strain on judges, has negative consequences for both individual judges and the judicial system by way of reduced efficiency, lack of engagement, and negative behaviors and/or physical symptoms.2 Studies of organizations indicate that several aspects of work are associated with stress: role overload, role insufficiency, role ambiguity, role boundary, responsibility, and physical environment.3 The result of stress on individuals can be measured by observable types of strain, such as physical (cardiac problems, gastrointestinal disorders); psychological (anxiety, depression) ; interpersonal (irritability, isolation); or vocational (low productivity, dissatisfaction). Such strains can be mediated by various coping skills, including healthy activities, social support systems, recreational activities, and cognitive skills.4

While the effects of workplace stress in general are well documented, there is limited empirical information about judicial occupational stress and the negative effects of physical and psychological strain on individual judges or the justice system. In the early 1980s, researchers studied state and local trial court judges to identify stress factors, their mediators, and the frequency of physical symptoms of stress. These studies show that judges experience stress in a variety of ways: nearly 12 percent of responding judges in one study reported experiencing high-to-troublesome physical symptoms due to work-related stress; weighty responsibility stemming from the important consequences of decisions; role overload resulting from ethical constraints and conflicts between case outcomes and personal ideology or values; and a perceived or actual risk of harm to self or family." While we can learn from these studies, they don't necessarily represent current judicial demographics or conditions: for example, fewer than 5 percent of the study subjects were female judges, while currently in the United States approximately 24 percent of state and federal judges are women, according to the National Center for State Courts and the Administrative Office of the U. …

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