Why Judges are Stressed: Key Revelations from a National Survey

Stressed out judge who looks like Munch's The Scream

Judges in the U.S. are physically and mentally exhausted, and often traumatized by their experiences on the bench; this according to the “National Judicial Stress and Resilience Survey,” a landmark study and the most thorough examination to date on the well-being of judges.

The results of that study, which offer a snapshot of some deeply concerning insights about the state of the judiciary, were recently presented by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (CoLAP) at the 2019 National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs. The study utilized the voluntary responses of 1,034 judges nationwide, with the largest pool of responses (38 percent) coming from judges between 60 and 69 years old, followed by judges between 50 and 59 (35 percent).

When asked to rate the primary sources of stress, the responding judges listed these as their top five challenges:

  1. Importance/impact of decisions
  2. Heavy docket of cases
  3. Unprepared attorneys
  4. Self-represented litigants
  5. Dealing repeatedly with the same parties without addressing underlying issues

Judges who participated in the study further listed how they are affected by stress:

  1. Fatigue/low energy after hearing several cases in a row
  2. Sleep disturbance (insufficient sleep, awakenings, daytime drowsiness)
  3. Interference with attention and concentration; tend to be distracted
  4. Ruminate or worry about cases after they have been decided
  5. Increased health concerns (high blood pressure, etc.)

One of the most concerning findings was that 2.2 percent of judges “had thoughts of injuring myself or suicide” in the last year; this may be the tip of an iceberg considering suicidal ideation is often underreported in our culture. And this type of concern for one’s own life can be deeply distracting when asked to focus upon the matters at hand.

Other reported depression symptoms included having fatigue or low energy (38 percent), “not having initiative to do what I used to” (22 percent), and preoccupation with negative thoughts (22 percent). Nineteen percent of judges responded that they had intrusive thoughts of traumatic images of people or evidence, which can be a symptom of anxiety.

Trauma and fatigue in the judiciary was further shown to have an impact on decisions made about parole. A 2011 study, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” about judicial decision fatigue (an unwillingness to make hard choices after a few difficult choices have been made), reviewed 1,112 judicial parole rulings based on time of day. That study showed how much more likely judges are to grant parole at the beginning of the day or after lunch, and how much more likely a tired judge is to say “no” in the late morning or late afternoon when they might feel mentally worn out.

Fatigue and Determination of Parole line graph

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The authors of the Judicial Stress and Resilience Survey made recommendations to members of the judiciary, state supreme courts, judicial assistance programs, and bar associations about ways to address the exhaustion, trauma, and isolation found among the judiciary. The repeated theme was to share the results of this study and create a conversation about judicial wellness.

This makes sense, as judges typically hold themselves to high standards for being alert, attentive, and capable. On the flip side are the feelings of shame one might experience about being in less than optimal health. Since secrecy is a petri dish for shame, the key is to talk about this issue with vulnerability about one’s own challenges. If the judiciary pretends like this is not a problem, it will be hard to find stakeholders and resources to address the demands of an onerous docket or feelings of isolation on the bench.

Other solutions include setting time aside for judges to open up with each other about the challenges of their profession, and creating room for Judicial Assistance Programs to step in and educate the judiciary about the advantages of counseling, wellness trainings, and other treatments for depression and stress.