J.A.I.L. News Journal
Los Angeles - January
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HAS ANYTHING CHANGED IN
From the 'Lectric Law Library's stacks
Getting Weird - Is The Pressure Too Much?
Fracture the Bench
Outlandish behavior in and out of court suggests the
BY DARRYL VAN DUCH, NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL
The National Law Journal - Monday, April 8,
JUDICIAL MELTDOWN has set in, say judges as well as the
lawyers and health professionals who work with them. Unbearable stress, they
say, is responsible for increasingly frequent, bizarre incidents involving
surprising number of judges, including some at the highest levels,
have been acting out of sorts, if not out of greed or
How to explain the following
* Illinois Supreme Court Justice James D. Heiple is
awaiting trial on
charges of resisting arrest for trying to outrun a police
said he stopped him for speeding.
* Los Angeles
Municipal Court Judge William Ormsby received a rare
"severe public censure"
March 20 from a judicial commission for
temperament problems, including
ordering the arrest of people who had
been whispering in his
* An elected civil trial judge in Illinois, Kane County
Judge Michael F. O'Brien, resigned Dec. 4, 1995, after it was
he had pretended for 20 years to be a Congressional Medal of
* U.S. District Judge A. Andrew Hauk of Los
Angeles, 83, was censured
by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for making
toward minorities and others, leading him to agree in 1994
hearing police brutality cases.
* Former Pennsylvania
Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen was convicted
in 1994 for illegally
obtaining anti-depression drugs.
* Former New York State Chief Judge
Sol Wachtler was convicted in 1992 for threatening to kidnap the teen-age
daughter of an ex-lover.
* Indiana's highest court dismissed Vigo
County Judge William McClain
last month and barred him from practicing law
for two years for
allegedly having "participated in sending" in 1991 a used
condom to a
courthouse secretary on whom he supposedly had a
Injudicious judicial behavior is escalating, according to the
Comprehensive Legal Needs Study" sponsored by the American
Association's Consortium on Legal Service and the Public:
against federal judges jumped 24 percent, from 354 in 1990 to 438
And on the state level, complaints against state judges
increases during the same period. In Texas, complaints jumped
percent, from 491 to 722; in New York, they're up 24 percent, from
to 1,456; and in Florida, complaints are up 16 percent, from 391 to
According to an article in the December issue of the ABA Journal,
Wisconsin nearly half of the 66 formal complaints involved
demeanor. And in Arkansas, 33 percent of the 185 complaints
allegations of injudicious temperament.
Some judges insist
their job is not particularly painful. "I find my job to be less stressful than
what I see going on in private practice," says Illinois Appellate Court Judge
Warren D. Wolfson, in Cook County, who has been active in the Illinois Lawyers'
Assistance Program. But mental
health professionals say the sudden outbursts
of intense anger they've
seen in judges is a result of the deep isolation and
lack of normal support systems that go with such a high-profile job. Judges'
anxiety-inducers, they say, include excessive and still increasing
caseloads; exceedingly complex legal issues surrounding the emergence of
global economy and the scientific information explosion; and intense
attributable to rising media fascination with high-profile
Political pressure on judges, too, has recently taken a quantum
leap, with sharp criticism of the rulings of both federal and state judges. The
harsh criticism has come not only from the floor of the U.S. Senate but from the
White House as well. President Clinton said recently he was weighing asking for
the resignation of one Manhattan federal judge because of his controversial
ruling in a drug case.
Long-term solutions to the dark side of judicial
life may go beyond
typical corporate stress-management seminars, candidate
mentoring and professional counseling. Some lawyers and
professionals also are calling for profound systemic reforms. At
one therapist suggests that judges may need a spiritual
The Denial Response
judges are their own worst enemies when it comes to
getting needed help, says
Gordon Blush, a doctor of clinical psychology
in Rochester, Mich., who
specializes in counseling distressed judges. He
says Justice Heiple's recent
brush with the law may be an example of a
judge in denial, a common reaction
to stress overload.
In the early-morning hours of Jan. 27, Justice
Heiple--who is slated to be Illinois' next chief justice--was stopped by
police for allegedly speeding a few blocks from his home in Pekin, Ill. While an
officer was writing a ticket, Justice Heiple, 62, reportedly drove away. After
police caught up with him moments later outside his house, Justice Heiple
allegedly became verbally abusive and required restraint. He was eventually
charged with resisting arrest. [NLJ, Feb. 12.]
attorneys--John P. Nicoara, of Peoria, Ill.'s Nicoara & Steagall, and
Frederick A. Bernardi, a Pekin sole practitioner-- issued a statement on the
justice's behalf "vehemently" denying the police accounts and threatening to
file a civil rights suit. On Feb. 1, the justice himself issued a statement
saying, "Implications have been made...that I flaunted my judicial
status...These suggestions are completely false." A trial on charges of speeding
and resisting arrest is set for mid-May.
Says Dr. Blush, "Here is a judge
who drives off and essentially says, 'I
will do what I want to do because I'm
a judge'...and doesn't realize...he really has nowhere to turn...to vent his
frustrations...because all the [social] bridges that connect most people with
each other have either been taken away or they have been burned."
Justice Heiple nor his attorneys responded to requests for an
the justice's friends describe him as "a private, easygoing kind of
guy"--despite his reputation as the most outspoken jurist on the state's highest
A colleague in Pennsylvania, former Supreme Court Justice
also was in line to become his state's chief judge when
indiscretions led him to lose his seat on the high court bench. In 1993, Justice
Larsen was charged with using court employees to obtain prescription
tranquilizers-- Valium and Diazepam--as part of a scheme to keep his psychiatric
treatment secret. [NLJ, 11-8-93.] Justice Larsen strongly denied the felony
charges through his then-attorney, Harrisburg, Pa., sole practitioner William C.
When fellow justices took the unprecedented step of
Justice Larsen accused two benchmates--Justice Ralph J.
Justice Stephen A. Zappala--of conspiring to reduce his power on
court and to prevent his accession to the chief's chair. He also
suggested that his "adversaries" were guilty of judicial misconduct, referring
to them as "fix artists."
A grand jury found "no credible evidence" that
Justice Larsen's peers had conspired against him or that they had fixed cases.
Instead, by the end of 1994, Justice Larsen, first elected to the state high
court in 1977, was impeached by the Pennsylvania State Senate for misbehavior in
office. In court, he was found guilty on two counts of conspiring to illegally
Still licensed to practice law, Mr. Larsen, 61,
now lives in semi-retirement and expects to be vindicated eventually, according
to his current attorney, Pittsburgh sole practitioner Stanton D. Levenson. Mr.
Larsen filed a federal civil rights suit Sept. 13 against the Pennsylvania
Senate, his former colleagues and disciplinary officials. He has also appealed
his criminal conviction.
Getting safely to the top is no guarantee
against falling into an emotional abyss. The widely respected former New York
Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, 64, says he felt he could not go much further in his
career when he hit a psychological wall in 1991 and plunged into a deep
He was suing his former
pal, then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, for withholding
more than $97 million from the
courts. It was Judge Wachtler's job to fire 500 court workers, many of whom were
minorities who had been hired under a popular diversity program. But apparently
the most painful aspect of Judge Wachtler's life then was the end of his
four-year extramarital love affair with a Manhattan socialite.
At the end
of 1992, the FBI arrested Judge Wachtler for allegedly
ex-lover, including threatening to kidnap her teen-age
$20,000 and mailing a condom to the girl.
In a 1993 interview with The
New York Law Journal, Judge Wachtler said
he had not wanted to see a
psychiatrist during this period of intense
emotional difficulties because of
the professional and social stigma
attached, especially in light of his
gubernatorial aspirations. Instead, he said, he turned to his family doctor, who
prescribed a number of drugs that only added to his problems. "Licit drugs
combined with a mental predisposition can be a very, very dangerous road to walk
down," he said. [NLJ, 8-2-93.]
Judge Wachtler served 13 months in federal
prison. During that time he
kept a diary, and on March 26 Random House
announced that it will
publish Mr. Wachtler's memoir. The book is expected to
prison experience, his emotional troubles and his life since his
release. He has since formed an alternative dispute resolution service in Great
Far from the world of Judge Wachtler and his socialite
mistress, the case of Patricia A. Schneider, 43, shows the suffering of
small-town judges and how long-standing personal problems can suddenly devastate
a promising career.
Ms. Schneider was the first female judge to ascend to
the bench in Will
County, Ill., a mostly rural community about 30 miles from
summer, locals were shocked when she was convicted and
sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for tampering with public records,
fixing traffic tickets for two friends.
Schneider's attorney begged the court for mercy. He said the "tragic" downfall
of the young jurist had followed her "remarkable" recovery after being
abandoned, at age 18, by an equally young husband and being left "penniless and
uneducated...[and] alone to raise three babies."
Said Ms. Schneider at
her sentencing hearing, "Unfortunately, what for me in the past may have been my
strong suit in raising my young family during less than ideal circumstances
became my Achilles' heel while making decisions as a judge. I was never
motivated by lust or greed, but by a desire to assist my family and
Culture of Misconduct
In a recently
published book by Manhattan trial Judge Harold J. Rothwax,
Collapse of Criminal Justice," the judge describes a national judicial system
that, like the society it serves, is "out of control."
Judge Rothwax says
there is a "culture of misconduct" in too many
courtrooms that "creates
disrespect and distrust" for judges and
demoralizes the judiciary. He
cites last year's O.J. Simpson murder trial as an example of how "petty
arguments between attorneys to gain tactical advantages" can turn the system's
supposed "search for truth" into a "shameful...sporting
Benjamin Sells agrees with the Manhattan criminal judge. Mr.
non-practicing lawyer, is also a Chicago psychotherapist with a
degree in philosophical psychology. A specialist in
professionals, he wrote a book in 1994, which is titled "The Soul
Mr. Sells also says that many lawyers--and especially
judges--took up the law out of a deep-seated love of fairness. But, with the
rise of the 1970s "Me" generation and its "glorification of the individual,"
idealistic jurists increasingly found they were expected by their "Darwinian
society... to act more like dispensers of power and political favoritism than
justice," he observes.
Many judges complain bitterly about mandatory
sentencing in criminal cases, states V. Robert Payant, the president of the
National Judicial College and a former state court trial
judge in rural
Michigan. And political pressure on judges takes its toll. The
White House, in a statement it later retracted, said U.S. District Judge Harold
Baer Jr. of Manhattan should reverse an evidentiary decision in a drug case or
he would be asked to resign by President Clinton, who had
appointed him in
1994. Judge Baer did agree to reconsider his decision
to throw out as
evidence 80 pounds of cocaine and heroin. A final ruling
At the same time, New York Gov. George Pataki is pushing to
Brooklyn, N.Y., trial judge Loren Duckman off the bench after the
decided not to jail two men with a history of physically abusing
One of the defendants subsequently murdered his ex-girlfriend; the
defendant threw his former lover down a flight of stairs. Judge
is on leave from the bench while he fights charges that he is unfit
to serve. A decision from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct is expected
The media's disintegrating respect for the judiciary further
judges' demoralization problem, say legal and health experts. In
his now widely debated opinions in the Baby Richard child custody
Illinois' Justice Heiple complained of "receiv[ing] several pieces of
hate mail" which, he argued, were directly attributable to an unrelenting series
of articles by a Chicago newspaper columnist. [NLJ, March 4.]
increased incidence of threats of violence--even death--also takes a
"It has to be always in the back of our minds," says Judge Payant.
year, in Chicago alone, a man was convicted of threatening to knife
judge after his lawsuit was dismissed. Another federal judge was mailed a bomb,
allegedly by a former criminal defendant who is now in federal custody. On March
12, a Wheeling, Ill., couple was charged with mailing a death threat to a third
federal judge who had dismissed part of their civil lawsuit.
legal community still talks about the 1983 murder of Cook
Court Judge Henry A. Gentile, who was shot in the head
during a post-decree
divorce proceeding by the disgruntled, litigating
ex-husband. Such threats
and attacks on federal and state judges have
occurred with increasing
frequency across the country.
Alabama State District Judge Eddie Hardaway
says he believes the two
shotgun blasts fired into his home Feb. 23 were a
payback for his having sentenced two white men to jail for
black churches. The judge and his family were uninjured but,
because their telephone line had been cut, they spent a night laying on a
glass-strewn floor until daylight, when they felt safe to go for help. The U.S.
Department of Justice is investigating.
On May 5, 1992, in Grand Forks,
N.D., state court Judge Lawrence Jahnke, 49, was shot and critically wounded in
his courtroom by an alleged deadbeat father during a child-support hearing. In
1989, 11th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert Vance, of
Mountainbrooke, Ala., a
suburb of Birmingham, was killed while opening a
mailed pipe bomb he
thought was a gift.
And in 1988, U.S. District
Judge Richard J. Daronco was shot and killed
while gardening outside his
suburban New York home, allegedly by the
father of a woman whose sexual
harassment suit Judge Daronco had
Some suggest that struggling judges must
themselves bear much of the
blame for their growing predicament. When
challenged in--or out--of court, Mr. Blush says, too many judges
automatically assert their
authority, thereby alienating others and further
isolating themselves until they "crash and burn."
Pennsylvania Justice Larsen accused his colleagues of
wrongdoing after they'd
reprimanded him, says Mr. Blush, "It was payback time... you did this to me, now
I'm going to do this to you."
Others say too many judges today are
inexperienced, especially those who
are elected and ascend the bench at a
young age. "[T]hen they have to
devote a lot of their energy just to stay
elected," says Wisconsin Justice Nathan S. Heffernan, who retired in August at
age 75 after 31 years on the state's highest court, the last 12 years as its
Even when judges are capable of ruling wisely, observes
D.C.-based clinical and consulting psychologist Isaiah N.
rapidly expanding dockets leave little time for them to be
"decision-makers...with almost no time to think." Today's
psychologist warns, are living in a state of "flooded
The increasing complexity of the law is also taxing and
anxiety-provoking. The ever-expanding body of "statutes, court precedents and
procedures... have made it impossible for many judges to engage in a clear and
mature search for the truth," says Manhattan's Judge Rothwax.
these stressors the heart-wrenching nature of cases that judges are hearing with
increasing frequency--especially those involving child abuse--with little expert
advice to guide them. "How much craziness can some of these judges take before
they start wondering if the world has been turned as upside down as it seems?"
asks Robert P. Cummins, a partner in the Chicago office of Dallas' Bickel &
Brewer and ex-chair of the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board.
be learned from those who have been "to hell and back" and
are willing to
talk about it. To survive intense public scrutiny while
presiding over the
recent, sensationalized trial of Susan Smith--who was
convicted of murder for
drowning her two young sons--Judge William L.
Howard, of North Charleston,
S.C., says he "rented a little house away
from [the trial site] rather than
stay in a hotel room...[B]y doing that one thing...I was able to make my own
dinner, bake my chocolate chip cookies, go for a walk with my wife and
Unfortunately, when a judge starts to slip, the legal community
generally fails to help. It responds usually by either overlooking his or her
offenses or invoking formal disciplinary procedures, says Frances K. Zemans,
executive vice president and director of the American Judicature Society. This
year the ABA did, however, establish a national "mentor team" to help judges
deal with high-profile trials.
Judges also can be taught to win control of their
courtrooms, says NJC's
Judge Payant. (So dismayed are some New York lawyers
by Judge Rothwax's strong courtroom administrative style they refer to him as
the "prince of darkness.")
But the personal steps judges take may "still
not be enough," warns Judge Rothwax. He says the system itself needs an
overhaul, and he offers a laundry list of suggested reforms, including
eliminating the individual's right to an attorney during investigations and
basing "speedy trial" rules on reasonableness rather than precise numbers of
days and weeks.
To Mr. Sells, with his training in philosophical
psychology, nothing short of jurists' experiencing a "spiritual" catharsis will
bring real relief. They must, he urges, find a way to rediscover their original
love of the law.
Copyright 1996, The New York Law Publishing Company. All
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