Views from the Bench
“Perhaps this will refresh your memory.”
Ten Ways to Reduce Judicial Stress
by Judge Steven Wallace
For many years I kept before me on the bench, out of the sight of litigants, my favorite James Thurber cartoon. It is a courtroom scene, the judge on the bench, a witness on the stand, and the cross-examining lawyer, sternly pointing to a kangaroo he has in tow and facing the witness, saying: “Perhaps this will refresh your memory.”
In the cartoon, the judge has a “Now what?” expression on his face and you just know that he’s churning inside, wondering when the chief judge is going to transfer him back to probate. Of course, the whole thing is nonsensical and trying to make sense of it is part of the amusement Thurber planned. But for a real life judge, making sense of what the real lawyers are doing in a very real courtroom, at times, may stretch a jurist’s very finite anti-stress capacity.
A judge needs a way to cope with everyday stressors such as lawyers with kangaroos and other adversarial shenanigans. In his or her battle against the demands of a very important, powerful job, many of the same stress-reduction techniques can be utilized that are available to other high octane professionals. Some of what follows are generally recognized stress combatants. Some are more judicially oriented than not. But all of the ten methods included here have one thing in common: the opposite of each causes stress.
Perhaps the most important anti-stress remedy available to a judge, as with anyone else, is regular (if not daily) exercise. Visit your physician, find out what sort of fitness program is recommended for you, then – as they say – just do it.
What’s important here is to find a way to make this a part of your routine, like brushing your teeth. The hardest part is dealing with the common rationalizations not to do it: I’m too tired, it’s too late, it’s too dark, it’s too cold (hot), I don’t have time, or whatever. The list can be endless. But whether it’s a thirty minute walk, a jog around the park, or a treadmill in chambers, the stress-relieving benefits of aerobic exercise are well-documented.
Because I’m a morning person, I typically exercise as the day begins. Years ago, I jogged during lunch time. I have also used pre-dinner runs to work the day’s stressors off, shedding courtroom frustrations and docket distractions like so many noxious microorganisms.
You need to apply the single-minded dedication that you brought to bear on getting to where you are professionally and make regular exercise something you can’t live without.
Get Sufficient Sleep
Everyone needs their rest, and hard-working professionals in demanding, mentally-taxing jobs need it most of all. It shouldn’t take too much effort to figure out what your minimum daily requirement is. Most of us need at least seven or eight hours of sleep per day. Perhaps there are some present-day Churchills out there who can get by with less. In any event, as with exercise, the physical and psychic benefits of sleep are not open to question. In fact, we have learned that the former promotes the latter. Just make sure that, if you exercise at the end of the day, you leave at least three hours before you go to bed.
A well-rested judge is a patient, understanding judge. On the other hand, a tired or strung-out judge is not someone any lawyer or litigant ought to have to suffer. Getting a good night’s sleep will enhance your ability to deal with stress and add to your life span as a direct result.
Control Your Docket
This is one of those things that’s easier said than done and, certainly, the subject for a whole other article. See Eight Rules for Judicial Time Management, Judicature Vol 91, No. 2, Sept-Oct 2007, by the author. Simply put, a judge needs to employ time management skills in controlling his or her calendar or risk being buried by it. Now, that’s stress.
Just as “it’s too cold” is a poor rationalization for not exercising, “I have too many cases” is a poor rationalization for losing control of one’s docket. If you start on time, work a full day, don’t feel compelled to quit at five, and keep the pressure on the lawyers to close cases, you’ll have made great gains toward not letting the number of pending cases bog you down.
If you set aside time every day to work on the stacks of files on your desk, if you don’t talk too much while on the bench, if you don’t let the lawyers run the show, and if you minimize continuances, you’ll be amazed how many cases you can close every week.
Once you have control of your docket, you have control over one of the biggest stressors in a judge’s life. A judge, after all, is supposed to be in control. But it takes application and courage and a common sense recognition that continuance requests are not your friend. It’s a fair bet that the judge who most readily grants continuances requests that lack good cause has the highest case count in the courthouse.
Actually, I have always found it amazing how readily a denial of a requested delay results in a case resolution. Perhaps that is a function of how infrequently continuance requests are grounded in real necessity. Perhaps it reflects back-against-the-wall case negotiation. In any event, the judge’s docket gets managed and – as a result – the judge’s stress level remains under control as well.
Decide, Then Move On
Incredibly, there are judges who shy away from making decisions. Just like the claustrophobic elevator operator, perhaps someone has been miscast. It has always both amused and annoyed me when I’ve seen fellow judges who seem to avoid looking across the bench at lawyers and litigants and deciding a case eyeball-to-eyeball. “I’ll take it under advisement,” the judge says, intending to mail them a decision.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that experienced trial lawyers often transition so well into judgeships. They are used to the pressure of the courtroom and the constant, spur-of-the-moment decision-making process.
There’s no reason why a trial level judge should not be able to make decisions in the courtroom, look the parties in the eye, and tell them who won and who lost. “Motion to suppress is granted.” Unless he or she does not know whether it should be granted or denied, but that is a whole other issue.
The great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige once said: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” That philosophy has a valid application to judging and the decision-making process. Decide, then move on. Your stress level will benefit from it.
If In Doubt, Don’t
The other side of the coin is another truism: a judge should not feel compelled to decide if he or she has some substantive doubt regarding what the decision ought to be. There are times when one needs to think about it, or do a little research on one’s own (not that the lawyers would ever fail to provide the court with applicable, up-to-date law), or perhaps even take some additional evidence or testimony.
Stress is a natural result from feeling forced to make a decision without an adequate comfort level. People’s lives often weigh in the balance, after all. If a judge needs to take some additional time before gaining a reasonable foothold on the proper path to take, that extra effort is justified for everyone’s sake, including the stress level of the judge.
Sometimes, once the evidence and the argument have been presented and the lawyers and litigants look toward the judge, awaiting the judgment, one feels pressured to satisfy that expectation. And I’ve already proffered Rule 4, which urges decisions to be made, but that should not push a judge into making a ruling about which he or she is not fully certain. The point is, stress-wise, harboring doubt after a decision is made is not healthy for a judge.
Keep Current in the Law
To avoid the kind of tentativeness that can intrude on the decision-making process, a judge must keep current in the law. While no one can be expected to know it all, it is a given that the lawyers cannot always be depended upon to assist the court in steering without mishap through the myriad of issues that present themselves in a busy courtroom. Without a firm base in current law regarding the most oft-occurring common substantive, procedural and evidentiary matters, a judge’s decision-making comfort level can go down and his or her stress level can go up.
Even when a judge keeps current, of course, the vast quantity of material does not lend itself to immediate recall on the spur of the moment when an objection is raised or a procedure questioned. One way to maintain a tip-of-the-finger reference is a courtroom notebook, with tabbed dividers denoting subjects to which one can flip when needing to check on a recent case or a general rule. This notebook can be continually updated as one keeps current, adding whatever points of law one suspects may be encountered in the courtroom.