How to Help Judges in Need of Help

By Paul Curtin

How to Help Judges in Need of Help

The running joke in the old commercials for Maytag washers and dryers is that the “Maytag repairman is the loneliest person of all” because no one ever calls. Now he can share his loneliness with those who staff “help lines” dedicated to judges experiencing problems with alcohol, drugs, mental health issues or other stress-related problems.

In both cases calls for help rarely happen.

In New York state, the Office of Court Administration has contracted with Work/Life to provide confidential information, referral and short-term counseling to judges and other employees. Unfortunately, most judges have no idea it exists and there is reluctance among those who might need its services, and are aware it exists, to use it. The New York State Bar Association has had a Judicial Wellness Committee for more than six years that offers confidential referral and peer support to judges, but few judges have taken advantage of what it has to offer.

The Advisory Panel on Judicial Impairment set up by Chief Judge Judith Kaye concluded that if the focus is on judicial impairment it would always be viewed as “something for the other guy.” A better way to approach the problem would be to focus on the inherent stress, isolation and pressure of being a judge. The recognition, familiarity and trust developed by providing assistance for the universal problems judges experience would make it more likely that judges experiencing impairment would be identified.

In order for this to be successful, two things have to happen:

1. There has to be an ongoing, personal presence to continually “market” the availability of this service. The work should include developing personal relationships with judges across the state, having regular formal and informal meetings with groups of judges, implementing “lunch and connect” gatherings of judges grouped by type of court, being available to assist judges going through difficult times, developing peer support groups composed of judges who have successfully addressed problems (i.e., alcoholism, cancer, family problems) and are willing to reach out to other judges, and attending the various District Wellness Events, Judicial Associations’ meetings and Judicial Institute trainings.

2. There has to be Executive Level, Administrative and Supervisory Judges “buy in” to promote and support the project. Unless there is active and aggressive promotion these efforts will get lost among other competing priorities. Since most of the referrals for help come from these judges, it is important that the project wins and keeps their trust while viewing them as partners in helping judges.

How can this be done for a population and organization that has a tendency for constriction and restriction? Can a non-traditional approach work in an arena that fears negative publicity?

Having a quality program is only the first step, and too often efforts end there. Unless the concept of “wellness” and judicial health is made a priority and viewed as a core competency, Judicial Wellness Programs might have to continue to share space with the Maytag repairman.

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