Coping with judicial stress

Having served as a judge in the Probate & Family Court for 25 years until reaching the mandatory retirement age, I am puzzled and saddened by the large number of probate judges seeking early retirement when they should be at the apex of their service.

I realize that the job has become more complicated. In some counties, self-represented litigants outnumber cases with lawyers, and there is an increase in complex litigation due to the evolving definitions of family.

There are steps, however, that judges can take to forestall burnout and continue to give the court system and the public the benefit of their experience.

Early in my judicial career, I received some sage advice from two people: my predecessor and a psychologist, an expert on judicial stress who was brought in to advise new judges.

In warning me against trying to undertake too much, Judge Haskell Freedman said that no matter how hard I worked, the job was like trying to clean up the Aegean Stables - never ending.

Dr. Zimmerman, meanwhile, talked about the importance of leaving the courthouse every day for lunch. Skipping lunch or eating at one's desk did not allow a brief respite from the press of court business.

In adhering to Dr. Zimmerman's admonition, I often thought about the response of the late general manager of the Red Sox when asked how he dealt with the stress of his job. His answer was "the sun will rise, the sun will set, and I will have lunch."

Today, a judge should take advantage of that hour to stretch both physically and mentally by leaving the courthouse to regroup and refresh in some way, whether to have lunch, to walk or just to think quietly.

A significant source of stress to a judge is the chaos caused by the demands of litigants and attorneys, and the growing lack of consistency in the court process. Although individual judges are often frustrated by their inability to influence the court system as a whole, a judge can control what goes on in his or her courtroom.

In preparation for hearing cases, the judge should work with the sessions clerk and other court personnel to establish a system that minimizes frustration and moves the cases. That frustration typically starts with a long line of attorneys and litigants waiting to check in with the clerk in the morning. Using court personnel to screen cases in advance of motion days can help resolve purely uncontested matters administratively while contested cases are categorized as to type and complexity. Such preparation provides the court with advance knowledge of the matters on the list, resulting in a more orderly processing of cases.

Although litigants are entitled to access to justice, that does not mean they are entitled to instant and repeated access to a judge. "Judge Judy" and "Divorce Court" do a great disservice to the cause of justice by fostering impressions to the contrary, while promoting the belief that court proceedings lack decorum.

The judge should set rules and be willing to impose sanctions on those who disrespect the court process. At first, a judge may get knots in his or her stomach at the prospect of having to sanction lawyers or litigants. But the message that there are consequences to inappropriate behavior in that judge's courtroom will help to establish predictability and consistency over chaos and uncertainty. Thus, with an increase in civility, judicial stress can be reduced.

Being a judge can also be very isolating. The opportunities for social interaction with lawyers and the public are constricted. However, attending or participating in educational programs sponsored by bar associations or MCLE provides an avenue for professional contact and a mechanism for keeping in touch with what is happening in the outside professional world.

Last but not least, I believe that regular physical exercise is essential for judges who, by the nature of their job, lead sedentary lives. Whether playing tennis or some other sport, jogging, doing yoga or just walking, daily exercise provides a much-needed release from stress.

This advice will not end all early retirements. But I hope that following some of it will help prevent burnout and encourage judges at the height of their potential service to stay the course.


Edward M. Ginsburg is a retired Probate & Family Court judge.

Published: Thu, Jul 05, 2018


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