Judging ‘under stress’: What it does to judges

“The judiciary as a robust and independent branch of government with judges who are impartial, independent, and free from the improper external influences that, whatever their provenance, can no longer be tolerated.” There is little question that a judge-ship offers many opportunities for personal fulfillment and satisfaction, and that many judges gain significant personal rewards […]

“The judiciary as a robust and independent branch of government with judges who are impartial, independent, and free from the improper external influences that, whatever their provenance, can no longer be tolerated.”

There is little question that a judge-ship offers many opportunities for personal fulfillment and satisfaction, and that many judges gain significant personal rewards from their work, which is among the most prestigious our society offers to its members. Despite the benefits, anecdotal evidence suggests that judges face unusually high levels of stress. Zimmerman interviewed several judges and identified many sources of stress inherent to a judicial career. Among these stressors is the lack of control most trial judges have over their caseload and the type of people appearing before them. These individuals are usually not society’s upstanding citizens represented by the best lawyers, but the most inadequate, unscrupulous, and marginally existing members of society. The stress from lack of control might be more manageable were judges not also chronically burdened with a backlog of cases, which can significantly tax their capacity for empathy and dispassion. According to ~irnmerman,~”W’ hen the workload grows steadily, a feeling of incipient dread and helplessness can come over even the most conscientious and hardworking judge, one simply cannot get away.” Other stressors identified by Zimmerman include social isolation, financial pressure, lack of performance evaluation, and information overload. Regarding social isolation, judges may be unique in the necessity of distancing themselves from long-held personal associations, often at the peak of their career. As one judge reported to Zimmerman, “The position is obviously more lonely than private practice. Also, are certain people only nice to you because of the position? You would like to discuss cases, but are prohibited by the ethical code.” Suran has identified other stressors that judges face, including an “overdeveloped capacity to defer gratification” and an excessive need to control one’s environment. The judicial system and the public’s perception of it also present stressors to a judge. These include the widespread and erroneous view that a judge’s schedule is leisurely, with many recesses and postponements. Additional stressors are the incompatibility between the ideal of individualized justice and the reality of massive caseloads, the difficulty knowing how best to work with court administrators, and the incompatibility between the ideal of judicial independence and the need for supportive relationships with other judges.

Stress and vicarious trauma are frequently discussed as a problem for frontline workers who do trauma work.

When we say frontline workers, people often think of emergency medical professionals, law enforcement, child welfare caseworkers, therapists, and residential staff for mental health facilities or prisons. Rarely do people think of the often quiet and even-tempered people who wear robes and sit behind a bench for a living: judges. Our public perceptions of the judge are as a person of ultimate neutrality who dispenses justice. But in reality judges also experience not only stress, but also vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma refers to distress associated with working directly with traumatized people. Professionals who work with traumatized people and traumatizing situations experience symptoms of trauma, including re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, and persistent arousal. In 2008, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s system brief reported that judges feel overwhelmed by the amount of trauma in the courtroom, the vast needs of the children and families who appear before them, system issues, and the overarching task of balancing the best interest of the child with the law. Judges are exposed to the details and emotions of traumatic situations, including significant physical or emotional harm caused by individuals or divorce. In addition to the exposure, they are asked to apply the law, remain neutral, engage the court participants and make life-altering decisions, all while putting aside any conflicting personal beliefs. Judges are asked to do all of this without any system of impartial feedback, and many without any formal training about the various duties of their role. Judge Bremer calls it a “sudden metamorphosis from Perry Mason to Solomon” and points out that this occurs in relative isolation in her article about reducing judicial stress through mentoring. Judges are also asked to be empathic listeners for families with trauma. Yet it is the empathy in response to the traumatic events that it can cause vicarious trauma for the judge.

The condition is quite the same in India as is worldwide. In, India too, the judges suffer a lot of stress and go through a lot of traumatic situation while rendering judgment and even after that. The digitalization of the world has contributed most to such stress being faced by the judges be it the trial court judges, the High Court judges or the Judges of the apex court. The print media and the press have contributed much to such judicial stress being faced by the judges in our country.

Nowadays media trials make a lot of influence on the judicial decisions in our country. Even before a matter is decided by the court the same is taken by the media and it runs into the public domain even before the decision is rendered.

There have been some instances where the Judges themselves have shared their experiences and the stress that they have encountered. Justice A.K. Sikri has rightly addressed this issue of stress that judges undergo in this digital era. His lordship drawn everyone’s attention towards the media trial and said, “Media trials were there earlier also. But today what is happening is that when an issue is raised, a petition is filed, (and) even before it is taken up by the court, people start discussing what should be the outcome. Not what ‘is’ the outcome, (but) what ‘should be’ the outcome.” He further added to this that such trails affect and influences the decision making. Referring how the situation has changed, his lordship said, “Few years ago, it has always been an opinion that once a judgment was rendered by the court, be it the Supreme Court, high courts or any trial court, you have every right to criticize the judgment. Now there is slander or defamatory speeches even against judges who gave that judgment.” The basic information that his lordship wanted to pass was the effect of such incidences on the mental wellbeing of a judge leading to stress. It appears from all of this that judging has really been a tough task in the current digital world.

Justice S. Muralidhar very recently in his farewell speech at Delhi HC also addressed the issue of ‘pressure’ that a judge undergoes and answering this lordship mentioned that, it depends on whether you acknowledge such pressure or not. His lordship further stated in this farewell speech that “Judging is, without question, not an easy task. It involves a daily onslaught of negative emotions brought to the court by anxious, and often frustrated, litigants seeking justice. It is possible that many of the physical ailments of judges are on account of having to withstand the negative energies. Maintaining equanimity and calm through the day, case after case, is indeed a big challenge.” One other incident of such stressfulness was reported when Justice Chandrachud revealed that he used to receive threats after the celebrated Judgment of Sabarimala which is considered to be landmark in holding gender equality. His lordship revealed this instance after a year of this verdict. His lordship mentioned that he was asked by his law clerks and interns not to us social media after such vile threats and abuse that he kept on receiving. His lordship also mentioned that such threats were disturbing and it disturbed their interns and clerks so much that they couldn’t sleep fearing the safety of judges. From such revelation by his lordship it becomes evident as to what Justice Sikri had said, it’s not only before the Judgment but even after that, a judge has to face such threats. It is very much probable as these incidents lead to mental stress and this requires daily meditations in order to keep the mind fresh for the new routines.

Very recently a study concluded by America regarding their judges reflects that there are several reasons for the judicial stress of the Judges. Some of them which are primary and lead to first degree stress are listed as:

i. Counsel is disrespectful or abusive of the judicial process.

ii. Counsel is ill-prepared or inadequate.

iii. Making decisions in cases where one party is poorly represented by counsel.

iv. Making decisions in cases in which the emotional climate between opposing/ contesting attorneys is very volatile.

v. Public scrutiny of a judicial decision in a highly publicized case.

vi. Strong public sentiment in a high publicity case.

vii. Making decisions in cases that allow significant judicial discretion. Not much has been written and discussed about the stressfulness of the Judges in the Indian context but these points based on the American study are very practical and are very much probable reason for the stressfulness of judges all across the globe.

So, to our understanding, Judiciary is indeed a very noble and robust profession but it requires a lot of mental stability to perform the judicial as well as the administrative functions with utmost transparency without a pinch of biasness and influence, and the same time maintaining a high degree of personal health and fitness.