The Mental Health of Judges

Years ago I had a conversation with a judicial colleague that went along these lines, “Jim you are either the best judge or the worst on our bench.” The conversation essentially went nowhere…and then a few weeks later Jim (not his real name) told me that he had sought professional help. The prescribed medication helped and there the story should have ended. But Jim felt an obligation to tell others about his medical condition, and regrettably the rumors or innuendo about “Crazy Jim” began.

Every judge has less than stellar days, but few get the “is he off his meds today?” treatment. And the story had a sad ending. Judges are people who are just as likely to suffer medical conditions as anyone else, but we live in an era where too often mental health is not viewed in the same way as a gall bladder attack or diabetes.

Recently, the New York Law Journal had an article on mental illness of judges and the challenges for those afflicted:

Eileen Travis, director of the New York City Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program, said judges are wary of reporting that they are having mental health problems. “They’re afraid that if word gets out, that’s just going to be it. That’s going to be the end of their career,” she said.

All states have laws protecting the confidentiality of lawyers and judges who seek assistance, Travis said. New York’s law, Judiciary Law §499, also grants immunity from civil liability to those who work for lawyer assistance programs.

For judges—who make up a small percentage of those who seek help from her office—there may be pressure to keep “cool, calm and collected,” Travis said, and a view that, as the ultimate problem-solvers in many cases, they need to maintain a veneer of being problem-free themselves.

“Even though, behind the scenes, they may be struggling with things that we all struggle with,” she said.

Austin attorney Seana Willing, the former head of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct who often met with judges who wanted to discuss ethical dilemmas, said jurists are extremely reluctant to discuss mental health problems.

“That judge may have to stand for re-election,” she said. “Some may have health insurance to cover it, and some may not. And a lot of family members circle the wagons in a way that might make it harder for the person to get help.”

In 2005, Willing had planned to sit down with Mack Kidd, a well-regarded Texas appellate court judge who had arranged the meeting on a Monday morning. She would never find out why Kidd wanted to meet. He took his own life the previous day.

“The odd thing was … I didn’t know how he died until his ceremony,” said Willing, who considered Kidd, a justice on Austin’s Third Court of Appeals, a friend. “Then I saw all of these people speak about him and it became apparent that he had taken his own life. That shocked me to the core.”

The American Bar Association has a national hotline for judges who are having mental health and addiction problems that is operated by the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP)—a State Bar of Texas program that offers confidential help with lawyers, law students and judges.

But Bree Buchanan, director of TLAP, said judges rarely call.

“They are invited to make a confidential phone call and we’ll help to find them resources and another peer support judge in the community that has faced something similar,” Buchanan said. “And we get about five or six calls a year.”

Judges often feel alone in their jobs because they have to separate themselves from the legal community for ethical reasons when they take the bench, she said.

“The problems that judges face are similar to stressors that lawyers face but I think they are more acute. Their degree of isolation is greatly increased,” Buchanan said. “And they can’t show any weakness or vulnerability even more than a lawyer because they are charged with making life-or-death decisions in their community. These factors in particular, combined, make it almost impossible for judges to reach out for help.”

Buchanan noted that it is often hard for members of the public to pick up on warning signs when a judge suffers from severe depression. For example, an impaired judge’s work product often does not suffer until their mental illness begins to spiral out of control. Some judges may give away their mental health issues if they display a disheveled appearance in court or are often late or missing from their jobs, she said.

“And then the difficulty becomes, what can be done about it?” Buchanan said. “And who in the county is going to approach the judge? It becomes very difficult.”

Buchanan said she encourages any judge who may be suffering from depression, mental health issues or addiction problems to call the ABA hotline for help at 1-800-219-6474.


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