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Judicial Crackups Fracture the Bench
Outlandish behavior in and out of court suggests the pressure's become too great.

The National Law Journal - Monday, April 8, 1996

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 a surprising number of judges, including some at the highest levels, who have been acting out of sorts, if not out of greed or lust.

How to explain the following events:

* Illinois Supreme Court Justice James D. Heiple is awaiting trial on charges of resisting arrest for trying to outrun a police officer who 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 courtroom.
* An elected civil trial judge in Illinois, Kane County Circuit Court Judge Michael F. O'Brien, resigned Dec. 4, 1995, after it was disclosed he had pretended for 20 years to be a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
* U.S. District Judge A. Andrew Hauk of Los Angeles, 83, was censured by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for making outrageous remarks toward minorities and others, leading him to agree in 1994 to stop 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 crush.

Injudicious judicial behavior is escalating, according to the "1994 Comprehensive Legal Needs Study" sponsored by the American Bar Association's Consortium on Legal Service and the Public: Complaints against federal judges jumped 24 percent, from 354 in 1990 to 438 in 1993.

And on the state level, complaints against state judges showed marked increases during the same period. In Texas, complaints jumped 47 percent, from 491 to 722; in New York, they're up 24 percent, from 1,171 to 1,456; and in Florida, complaints are up 16 percent, from 391 to 455.

According to an article in the December issue of the ABA Journal, in Wisconsin nearly half of the 66 formal complaints involved judicial demeanor. And in Arkansas, 33 percent of the 185 complaints included 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' special anxiety-inducers, they say, include excessive and still increasing caseloads; exceedingly complex legal issues surrounding the emergence of a global economy and the scientific information explosion; and intense scrutiny attributable to rising media fascination with high-profile trials.

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 screening, mentoring and professional counseling. Some lawyers and health professionals also are calling for profound systemic reforms. At least one therapist suggests that judges may need a spiritual conversion.

The Denial Response

Many stressed-out 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.]

Justice Heiple's 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."

Neither Justice Heiple nor his attorneys responded to requests for an interview. But 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 court.

A colleague in Pennsylvania, former Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen, 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. Costopoulos.

When fellow justices took the unprecedented step of reprimanding him, Justice Larsen accused two benchmates--Justice Ralph J. Cappy and Justice Stephen A. Zappala--of conspiring to reduce his power on the 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 obtain anti-depressants.

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 depression.

Job Stress?

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 harassing his ex-lover, including threatening to kidnap her teen-age daughter, demanding $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 describe his prison experience, his emotional troubles and his life since his release. He has since formed an alternative dispute resolution service in Great Neck, N.Y.

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 Chicago. Last summer, locals were shocked when she was convicted and sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for tampering with public records, particularly for fixing traffic tickets for two friends.

Ms. 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 friends."

Culture of Misconduct

In a recently published book by Manhattan trial Judge Harold J. Rothwax, "Guilty: The 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 contest."

Benjamin Sells agrees with the Manhattan criminal judge. Mr. Sells, a non-practicing lawyer, is also a Chicago psychotherapist with a master's degree in philosophical psychology. A specialist in in counseling professionals, he wrote a book in 1994, which is titled "The Soul of the Law."

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 Reno, Nev.-based 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 is expected soon.

At the same time, New York Gov. George Pataki is pushing to get Brooklyn, N.Y., trial judge Loren Duckman off the bench after the judge decided not to jail two men with a history of physically abusing women. One of the defendants subsequently murdered his ex-girlfriend; the other defendant threw his former lover down a flight of stairs. Judge Duckman 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 this month.

The media's disintegrating respect for the judiciary further compounds judges' demoralization problem, say legal and health experts. In one of his now widely debated opinions in the Baby Richard child custody case, 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.]

The increased incidence of threats of violence--even death--also takes a toll. "It has to be always in the back of our minds," says Judge Payant.

Last year, in Chicago alone, a man was convicted of threatening to knife a federal 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.

Chicago's legal community still talks about the 1983 murder of Cook County Circuit 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 racially motivated payback for his having sentenced two white men to jail for vandalizing 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 dismissed.

Flooded Consciousness

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."

When former 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 chief justice.

Even when judges are capable of ruling wisely, observes Washington, D.C.-based clinical and consulting psychologist Isaiah N. Zimmerman, rapidly expanding dockets leave little time for them to be anything but "decision-makers...with almost no time to think." Today's judges, the psychologist warns, are living in a state of "flooded consciousness."

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.

Add to 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.

Lessons can 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 dog."

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.

Spiritual Conversion?

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 Rights Reserved.

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