Acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Gerald Lebovits says he has not experienced high levels of stress on the bench—he describes himself as “lucky, optimistic, happy and fulfilled”—but he suspected that many other judges struggled with the pressures of the job. So he began researching the topic and wrote what became the June cover story of the New York State Bar Association’s Journal: “Judicial Wellness: The Ups and Downs of Sitting New York Judges.”
The article confronts the confluence of stressors that state judges can face, from the pressure of making life-altering decisions to the frustration of not being able to address criticism, or even lies, spread online by disgruntled litigants. Even a lack of resources, coupled with heavy caseloads, can lead to burnout. “Judges can’t confide deep, dark secrets to other judges, even judge-friends. There’s competition among judges to get elected and promoted.” He also discusses the isolation many judges feel. “Trial judges are each stranded on their own islands,” he wrote. This, he found, can lead to self medication, “bullying from the bench,” and poor overall job performance. However, the article does include a host of tips to help judges be physically and mentally healthier.
Lebovits is president of the 300-judge New York State Association of Acting Supreme Court Justices. He has been a New York City judge since 2001 and previously presided in Civil Court, where he was the president of its 120-judge Board of Judges, Criminal Court and Housing Court, for which he was the president of the 50-judge Association of Housing Court Judges.
He is adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, Fordham University School of Law and New York University School of Law. He received an LL.M. in criminal justice from New York University School of Law in 1986; an M.C.L. from Tulane University School of Law in 1980 and an LL.L. from the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Civil Section, in 1979.
Q: What prompted you to write an article for the state bar’s magazine about the personal struggles judges face?
A: I’ve been a judicial-association president for years—first for New York City’s 50 Housing Court judges, then for New York City’s 120 Civil Court judges, and now for New York State’s 300 acting Supreme Court justices. I care about judicial wellness because I care about judges. They’re great people. They’re my colleagues. They’re my friends. One’s my girlfriend. And working for the betterment of judges is the same as working for the betterment of the public to strengthen the rule of law. Someone who in some way helps but one judge can influence for the better dozens of cases. The New York State Bar Association’s Journal is the natural home for this piece. It has reach: more than 80,000 hard copies of each issue are mailed out, and then the Journal goes online on Westlaw, Lexis and elsewhere. I wanted to support it and its stellar staff. I’ve published something in every NYSBA Journal issue since July 2001. The state bar also organizes and funds the State Judicial Wellness Committee.
Q: Have you had any reaction or feedback from judges and lawyers who read the article?
A: I’m very grateful to these who have been kind enough not to tell how much they didn’t like it. But one email was from a New York judge who’s been a judge in recovery for more than 25 years. He or she emailed me to report that because of my article, he or she will soon travel the state helping alcohol- and chemically dependent judges.
Q: How were you made aware of this issue? Have judges shared their concerns with you?
A: I first heard about judicial wellness at a judges seminar my judicial association hosted about 10 years ago; I was a judge for nearly six years at that point. A man from the state bar’s Judicial Wellness Committee talked to us over lunch (at which alcohol was available for purchase) about alcohol- and chemically dependent lawyers and judges.
Judicial wellness is a taboo subject. Judges gripe among themselves about not having the tools to do their jobs—a lack of tools that affects judicial wellness. But it’s rare for judges to tell colleagues their personal problems. Perhaps it’s because some judges don’t have problems to speak of. Perhaps it’s because the judge will sort it out without needing to share what’s going one; judges are made of stern stuff. Perhaps it’s because some of us will discourage our colleagues from unburdening themselves; we don’t want to hear about another’s problems more than we must in court. And perhaps it’s because judges don’t want others know about or be affected by their problems; folks won’t trust them or their decisions if they confess to impairment.
Q: Can you tell me about the research that went into writing and reporting this article?
A: I suffered from judicial stress writing this article. I wrote it in two weeks. I was up against a deadline for the Journal’s June 2017 edition. I based the article on things I’ve thought about for some time and on opinions from lawyers who prosecute and defend judges in state judicial disciplinary matters. In terms of legal research, I cited the New York Law Journal a few times, of course.
Q: Why don’t more judges seek help, especially if they can do so anonymously?
A: I don’t know whether judges who need help are or are not seeking it. But I hope because of this article that all judges now know about the state bar’s Judicial Wellness Committee.
Q: Have you ever struggled with depression or loneliness as a judge?
A: No. I’ve always felt lucky, optimistic, happy and fulfilled. Even when I’ve had little justification to feel that way.
Q: What do you think needs to happen to lift the stigma for judges to ask for help?
A: Depends on what a judge is asking for help for, and from whom. There will always be stigma if a judge does something wrong because of stress. The public is entitled to the good judges we have in New York.
Q: What can lawyers do if they see a judge who they believe is having emotional difficulties on the bench?
A: The one thing in a lawyer’s control is the lawyer’s own behavior: Lawyers should represent their clients civilly, professionally, and with undivided loyalty, and spend less time worrying about the judge. But a lawyer who sees something real may contact the judge’s supervising or administrative judge; write to the Commission on Judicial Conduct if ethical issues arise; diplomatically protect the record for their clients; have the courage to bring an Article 78 proceeding to compel the judge to issue a late opinion; and get involved in judicial-appointment committees, electoral politics, and bar-association rating panels. A lawyer who is a true friend of the judge can speak to a trusted expert to learn how to stage a judicious intervention with the judge and the judge’s loved ones.
Q: Has or does anyone from the Office of Court Administration advise judges on how to deal with stress?
A: The New York state court system, through its Judicial Institute, has just this week re-started its four-day Summer Judicial Seminars (NYLJ, June 19). There were three wellness programs this past week and scheduled for the week of July 24: 60 minutes of yoga and Zumba Gold every morning before the seminars begin; one 80-minute session of “Overruling Judicial Stress: Pearls From 20 Years Counseling Judges”; and one 60-minute session of “Judicial Disciplinary Matters,” with a discussion of the state bar’s Judicial Wellness Committee.