Australian judge warns that overworked judges may contemplate suicide

In a remarkably stark assessment, New South Wales District Judge Robyn Tupman warned that docket pressure on Australia’s courts might drive some of her judicial colleagues to suicide.

Citing two recent, high-profile cases of Australian judges taking their own lives, Judge Tupman argued that a lack of resources in the courts put pressure on judges–especially newer judges–to keep up with rapidly expanding dockets. This is particularly concerning, Judge Tupman said, when docket pressure forces judges to make highly sensitive decisions under extreme time pressure. By way of example, she noted that she was scheduled to sentence seven different offenders on the day of her remarks, some of which were bound to draw significant public attention. The clear implication of her remarks was that pressure to get the sentence right was exacerbated by not having enough to time to properly consider it.

Judge Tupman described the her current caseload as “ridiculous, absurd and offensive to the people of NSW.”

Her comments follow other recent statements of concern about judicial mental health in Australia. Local bar leaders and NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman have committed to review the judge’s concerns.

 

On the mental health strains associated with judging

Years ago, in practice, I was involved in a series of cases involving allegations that a certain drug had caused infertility in women. I had to depose a number of plaintiffs who had been unable to bear children, and ask them intensely personal questions about their physical and sexual health in order to better ascertain the strength of their claims. I did my very best to handle the situation like a professional, but often the deponents would (understandably) become highly emotional during questioning. For me, an unmarried twenty-something just a few years out of law school, it was an awkward experience. Their reactions would stick with me when I went home at night.

From time to time I would ask my friends who worked as attorneys in the criminal justice system–who spent their days knee-deep in murders, sexual assaults, and various other horrible acts–how they could block those images away when they went home at night. It wasn’t easy at all, they admitted, but somehow they managed. One had to find a way to compartmentalize work and home, for one’s own mental health. And often those images and stories did haunt them at home, as much as in the workplace.

A lengthy story out of Australia keenly illustrates that judges are equally susceptible to these challenges. Six judges in Victoria talked to the Sydney Morning Herald about judicial mental health, including the judges’ environment, coping mechanisms, and (occasionally tragic) responses. As one judge put it:

“It’s been hidden, unspoken, unacknowledged and surrounded by taboo and shame for a long time,” she says. “There’s this sort of almost irreconcilable conflict between being an impartial decision-maker and being a human being who responds in a human way to what we’re doing.

“Because we’ve got to be tough [and] impartial, there’s been a concern about ‘Are you not intellectually rational enough to do the job, or are you too weak as a person if you’re responding on a personal level to other people’s trauma?’ So [there’s] the shame of saying, ‘I’m struggling, I’m finding this hard … I’m finding it hard to reconcile the human part of me with my impassive, impartial demeanour.'”

An important read for anyone involved in the administration of justice.

 

Tweeting Judges, Revisited

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who rose to fame in social media circles for his active and vibrant use of Twitter, was deemed “well-qualified” for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by the American Bar Association earlier this week. Perhaps appropriately, the decision was tweeted out by another prominent member of the state court Twitterati, Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Dillard.

Justice Willett has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and was a very active tweeter before his federal judicial nomination drove him to stay off the platform, at least temporarily. But he is no longer a rare exception to the rule that active judges stay off of social media. Chief Judge Dillard has more than 11,000 followers, and tweets several times a day, mostly on general legal issues.  He is joined by many other judges around the country with active Twitter accounts.

The legal profession has always been uneasy with judges engaging social media. David Lat took a look at this in 2014, concluding that the judicial use of Twitter to educate the public about the work of the courts was entirely appropriate, and that “judges just need to exercise sound judgment.”

The social media landscape has only grown in the ensuing three years, and the question is worth another look.  Is the judicial use of Twitter humanizing or harmful?

Continue reading “Tweeting Judges, Revisited”

Australian High Court to determine eligibility of seven MPs to serve in national government

In an interesting example of governmental interdependence, the High Court of Australia will consider this week whether seven Members of Parliament should be disqualified from their elected positions because they hold dual citizenship. Australia requires its MPs to be Australian citizens; the affected legislators are all technically dual nationals, most of whom share citizenship with New Zealand.

That a court should have to make this decision is not itself particularly intriguing. But there are several unusual and interesting dimensions. First, the hearing will take place over three days — significantly longer than, say, the one hour that the U.S. Supreme Court typically allows for cases of similar importance. Second, the decision will have significant ripple effects, especially if the MPs are ruled to be ineligible. Australia’s narrow governing coalition may be put at risk, new elections will have to be called, and earlier decisions made by the MPs (two of whom are also government ministers) could be challenged. Third, the problem might have been avoided long ago: the dual-citizenship issue has been on the political radar for two decades or more, but all efforts to amend the country’s Constitution to address it have lost steam. Ultimately, the High Court will have to make a legal decision with potentially profound political consequences.

Some additional reactions from Down Under can be found here and here.

 

Three Australian ministers may face contempt charges for criticizing judges

In Australia, the Supreme Court of Victoria has order three government ministers and two journalists to appear before it to explain why they should not face contempt charges for eroding trust in the legal system.  One minister reportedly said that “Labor’s continued appointment of hard-left activist judges has come back to bite Victorians.”  Another allegedly warned that the courts “should not be places for ideological experiments in the face of global and local threats from Islamic extremism.”

The linked article offers as excellent explanation of the two forms of contempt available in Australia.  Although these proceedings are apparently quite rare, they are still shocking to American sensibilities. First Amendment protections and respect for vigorous political speech would make prosecution of this sort unthinkable.

I would welcome any readers more knowledegable than I in Australian jurisprudence (not a high bar) to offer thoughts in the comments.