International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Summer 2013 Issue



Judicial Pressure and a Remedy for Unstable Judicial Behavior

Dr. James G. Apple

By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor and President, International Judicial Academy

Several weeks ago I was preparing for a meeting with some judges from the Peoples Republic of China. The topic of discussion was to be legal journalism, that is, how some selected media organizations provide their audience, through newspapers, magazines and other forms of mass communication, with information about courts and judges. I collected several issues of a prominent weekly legal newspaper in the United States. In reviewing some of the issues of this publication in preparation for my presentation, I noticed one prominent headline in an April, 2013 edition: “Judges Cracking Under Pressure.” The accompanying news story described how some judges from different parts of the United States had engaged in bizarre behavior in the performance of their judicial duties. Here is the opening paragraph:

A Florida judge bounds out of his seat behind the bench and screams at an attorney for what he claims was her bad attitude. A West Virginia family court judge yells furiously at a litigant in a divorce case. The judge tells the man, who happens to be a church pastor, to “shut up” or go to jail. A trial judge in Tennessee shouts at an attorney during a deposition to do his bidding or risk his wrath.

The commentary in the story stated that some legal experts “argue that the intense pressures placed on judges these days are stoking those flared tempers.”  Some of those pressures are derived from “overloaded dockets and stagnant pay.” The crux of the story was that judicial disciplinary actions caused by unstable or erratic behavior are on the rise in many parts of the U.S.

The view that judges, especially trial court judges, are exposed to a large amount of pressure is not a new observation. I often hear comments from judges around the world about the pressures placed on them because of the number of cases assigned to them or the circumstances under which they do their work. Is there anything that can be done to correct this problem?

The consequences of pressure on judges in one instance led to a new kind of judicial education, a type that might be called non-traditional education. This non-traditional type of judicial education began in Massachusetts, in the northeast part of the United States. Several years ago the Chief Judge of the Massachusetts District Courts, Judge Samuel Zoll, had personal experience with the pressures being placed on judges in his courts. He recognized that many cases coming before the courts involved issues that went beyond the mere application of some legal principle. There were very often issues of human values that required something other than knowledge of statutes, regulations, and legal principles. These issues frequently involved intense emotional matters, which placed added strain to the tasks of the judges. Law was only one dimension of complex controversies requiring the judges’ attention. As one commentary noted, “ Judge Zoll became “acutely aware of the toll the daily burdens of the trial courts were having on his judges. The daily grind of the courtroom created, in his mind, the need for something inspirational for his judges – an experience that would uplift them and provide insights into human conflicts with which they were confronted” on a daily basis. He decided to do something about it. He founded, almost single handedly, the “law and literature” movement.

In establishing the program, Chief Justice Zoll “recognized a fundamental need for judges, in the cases before them, to look into deeper issues involving the use of power, ethics, family relations, conflict, and community perceptions in order to resolve the disputes.” He secured the assistance of two professors at a university in Boston. According to one of the professors, “Chief Justice Zoll’s contribution was his ability to see a need, match the resources to meet the need, and institutionalize the program in the judicial system.”

The then Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward F. Hennessey, fully supported the program and invited all district court judges to attend this new program. While attendance wasn’t mandatory, every judge did attend the first program. Groups of judges gathered on the campus of Boston’s Brandeis University and discussed moral, ethical, and personal conflicts arising out of their study of works of literature. Chief Justice Zoll’s leadership for the program included consistent commitment over the long-term. “Judge Zoll was present at each of the pilot programs,” said the college professor. “That had an enormous impact. And his insight into court administration and processes proved to be invaluable.” Word spread quickly,” Chief Justice Zoll explained. “We could not keep judges away. They wanted to come back a second and third time.” He commented, “It was probably the only program we proposed that had the unanimous support of all of the judges.”

Chief Judge Zoll commented about the program: “The demands of the job require an intellectual ability to focus intensely, to have a firm philosophical foundation, and to understand the sociological consequences of judicial decisions,” Law and literature programs should be an integral part of a professional, modern court.” Judges participating in the law and literature program left the discussions with “a stronger and deeper sense of what they are doing.” He observed that there continues to be a “strong desire of judges to have somewhat structured, reflective periods to help them do their work.”



An unexpected result of the program was that it brought a “greater understanding of courts and judging to the academic community. It produced a profound understanding of and respect for the judges’ role and the inherent tensions of judging,” said Judge Zoll. Since the 1980s, the Judge Zoll’s innovative and non-traditional judge education program has been replicated in other states, helping judges to relieve tension and exposing  judges and court personnel to new perspectives of their role in the justice system. “Doing Justice,” as the program was named, was recognized in 1983 by the National Endowment for the Humanities and awarded one of seven exemplary grants.

There was also one other development in the area of judicial education which, as far as I have been able to determine, is unique to the United States. It definitely falls into the category of non-traditional judicial education and it is derived from the particular circumstances of the judicial workplace in which most judges labor.

I have observed during my time in dealing with judges and courts in a capacity other than as a practicing lawyer, which now spans a period of 23 years, that judges in most countries live an almost monastic existence. There are several reasons for this situation. One is that judicial codes of conduct place certain social constraints on judges, limiting the kind of professional persons with whom they can interact, because of the possibility that such contacts might appear before the judges in one or more cases, thereby creating an appearance of impropriety. The same reason holds true for social acquaintances. Also judges are limited in the kinds of organizations to which they can belong, and the kinds of activities in which they can engage, such as political organizations and organizations that require members or officers to engage in fund raising activities. Also judges’ work loads require long days and even evenings engaged in holding court, conducting legal research, conferring with lawyers and managing cases that are not yet ready for a final hearing, trial or disposition.

This work life means that judges have little contact with persons other than their fellow judges in the courthouse and members of the courthouse staff and the staff of their own chambers. Such a life style is likely to lead to feelings of isolation, stagnation, displeasure with judicial work, absence of knowledge about societal trends, and important developments in the community outside the law and legal developments. Such a life style can also lead to abnormal behavior that can become neurotic or psychotic, as demonstrated in the legal newspaper cited at the beginning of this commentary.

This situation has led some judicial training organizations to offer alternative judicial education programs in the form of special seminars containing lectures on subjects ranging from literature, history, philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology and economics to cosmology, chemistry, physics, neuroscience, anthropology,  mathematics, and even engineering.

The Federal Judicial Center conducted for 24 years, in cooperation with a private-non profit judicial education organization based in Washington, D.C., a seminar featuring presentations not only on science but also on the humanities (history, philosophy, economics, sociology, foreign affairs, etc.). These seminars have also been enormously popular and have received the highest evaluations.

The above courses have been advertised as providing opportunities for “intellectual refreshment” and general enlightenment, as well as providing opportunities for judges to learn about cultural trends and societal developments that ultimately may cause a judge to reflect about the adequacy of laws and decisions that they are expected to apply in the cases before them. Judges cannot afford to move too far away from mainstream or consensus viewpoints held by the populace of a country or region about many social issues if they are to maintain the respect of the citizens that they and their courts serve.

The Federal Judicial Center also offered a seminar for four consecutive years in the late 1990s for both federal and state judges on science issues. The science seminar was held at an internationally famous laboratory in New York, and featured presentations on genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, epidemiology and infectious diseases, forensic medicine, and toxicology. The presenters were highly acclaimed scientists in their respective fields, including three Nobel Prize winners. These seminars were highly popular, received excellent evaluations and established three principles:

  1. Leading scientists could make presentations on scientific subjects that were capable of being understood by non-scientists.

  2. Judges as non-scientists were capable of understanding even very complex scientific ideas.

  3. Understanding the way in which science operates, as well as the substance of the individual presentations, was extremely useful to the judges in their daily work in dealing with the many cases that involved scientific issues.

Non-traditional judicial education courses are not yet in the mainstream of the judicial education movement. Very few countries outside the United States, if any, offer such courses. But experimentation with this kind of judicial education has shown that it can be valuable, not only as an antidote for the correction of unstable judicial behavior, but also as a road to judicial enlightenment which benefits all who come into contact with a judge who has experienced it.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2013 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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