A Florida judge bounds out of his seat from behind the bench and screams at an attorney for what he claims is 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.
Each of these incidents led to judicial disciplinary actions in recent months. While few would excuse this kind of behavior, some legal experts argue that the intense pressures placed on judges these days are ­stoking those flared tempers. "A fair number of judges are sitting at a low boiling point," said Michael Downey, a partner at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis whose practice focuses on legal ethics.
Overloaded dockets and stagnant pay are just part of the problem, Downey said. A slow economy means that more litigants are representing themselves. Still others are hiring cheaper, inexperienced lawyers or those so desperate for cases that they’re accepting weak matters. "People are coming in unprepared or with borderline arguments, at best," Downey said.
With YouTube, Twitter and other social media enabling the widespread exposure of their emotional meltdowns, jurists who lose their cool risk becoming infamous before a global audience.
Sanctions against judges for "intemperate" behavior are just part of an increase in the number of judicial disciplinary matters. During 2012, sanctions ranging from public admonition to outright removal from the bench rose by 5.7 percent compared with 2011, according to data from the American Judicature Society Center for Judicial Ethics. The number of disciplinary matters resulting in those sanctions totaled 223.
Last year, 13 state court judges were removed from the bench, compared with eight in 2011. Twenty-four judges resigned in lieu of discipline, compared with 12 in 2011. Since 1980, some 400 state court judges have been ousted from bench for misconduct, the center reported.
That Florida judge, Timothy Shea, was publicly reprimanded on March 14 for screaming across his courtroom at an assistant state attorney for what he took for disrespectful behavior. She apparently had shaken her head as the judge attended to an unrelated matter, according to the Florida Supreme Court disciplinary ruling. His conduct was part of a pattern of improper behavior, the court found, including telling a female attorney to fetch coffee for those in his courtroom. Shea did not respond to requests for comment.
In the West Virginia matter, Judge William Watkins last month was removed for the duration of his term, which was to end in 2016. In a disturbing videotape uploaded to YouTube last year of a courtroom proceeding in pastor Arthur Hage’s divorce, the judge screamed at Hage, whom he accused of posting a photo of Watkins’ home online. "Shut up! Don’t even speak," the judge yelled. "You disgusting piece of…." (Watkins could not be reached for comment.)
Anthony Falanga, a former New York State Supreme Court justice who presided over matrimonial cases on Long Island for 12 years, said he understands the courtroom triggers. The pressure to move "an enormous amount of cases" is constant, he said. And when litigants are self-represented, time wasted in improper cross-examinations and nonresponsive answers can try the patience of the most even-tempered judge, he said. "It seems like these matters never end," said Falanga, who entered private practice last year after retiring from the bench.
Falanga stressed that he "loved" his job as a judge and that his wife helped him cope with the pressures. "She’s a psychotherapist," he said.
Also driving judges to the brink is that litigants have become more disrespectful, said William Ross, a professor at Samford University Cumberland School of Law who specializes in judicial ethics. It used to be droopy trousers or mumbling responses that judges had to deal with, from parties who failed to appreciate the dignity of a courtroom proceeding. It’s gotten worse, Ross said.
In February, for example, a YouTube video receiving millions of hits showed 18-year-old Penelope Soto of Florida making an obscene finger gesture to Judge Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat in Miami. The judge, who managed to remain calm, sentenced her to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.
While rude behavior from judges is inexcusable, Ross said, a contributing factor might be reality TV programs including Judge Judy, The People’s Court and Divorce Court — hardly models of decorum, he said. "Some of these TV programs may encourage litigants to behave with disrespect," he said. "They may have taken their cue from courtroom dramas and television."
Many jurisdictions have civility codes for attorneys and judges that insist upon polite behavior in the courtroom, Ross said. But it’s unlikely that the code is foremost in a judge’s mind in the heat of the moment. "I regret that they’re needed," Ross said. "[Civility] ought to be second nature to them."
Support groups exist for judges struggling with job pressures, but most deal with substance abuse. The American Bar Association operates a national help line for judges with addiction or mental health problems, and many states have confidential Judges Helping Judges programs. In Oklahoma, one program helps judges who experience lapses in judicial temperament, docketing problems or workload-management difficulties. Judges with addictions in that state are urged to use its Lawyers Helping Lawyers program.
Leigh Jones can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.