Calling for Help: Hotline Addresses California Judges’ Health Issues

Heart problems generally cause people to take a break from work.

Not so for one California judge. He had a minor cardiac episode in his courtroom and still had to be convinced he needed some time off." He was a very stoic individual who always expected himself to tough things out, and the idea of allowing himself to take a break was foreign," says a health-care consultant for judges in both the California courts and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals .The consultant suggested short-term disability leave for the California judge. The judge didn’t like the sound of that. After some discussion, he finally agreed that taking disability leave was similar to taking a sabbatical, which wasn’t so distasteful to him." As long as it had the right spin, he was OK with it," the consultant says. He worked with the California judge via the state courts’ Judicial Support Network.

In federal court, the consultant provides similar services via a hotline known as the Private Assistance Line Service. It is the only program of its kind at the federal level, says Mary M. Schroeder, chief judge of the 9th Circuit. The 9th Circuit asked that the health-care consultant not be identified, fearing that judges might be hesitant to call if the service gets too much attention. 

All information that comes into the six-month-old hotline is also kept confidential. The hotline is open to judges, their spouses and staff members.Concerns about substance abuse and senility prompted a study among 9th Circuit judges; results of the study led to the hotline’s creation, Schroeder says. Conducted in 2000, the study found that about 49 percent of judges are over 65. The study also found that the judges had a heightened need for confidentiality and that they were not used to taking direction from others.

From the study, "We discovered that there were all kinds of issues," Schroeder says. For instance, the decision of whether to take senior status can lead to depression among older judges. The hotline does not provide direct services. Instead of telling a caller what to do, the consultant offers suggestions on various options available to those who call. He says few judges have called the hotline themselves; most inquiries so far have come from spouses, staff members and others.

For example, a federal clerk who worked for an elderly judge was worried about the jurist’s ability to take care of himself. She contacted the hotline for help. A judge’s wife was recovering from a broken wrist and had concerns about taking care of her husband, who had recently had surgery. She called for help, too ."Really, marshaling resources has been the bulk of the requests," says the consultant, a nonlawyer who has a master’s degree in public health."

Sometimes people just need a little guidance as to where to turn next," he says. According to Schroeder, 9th Circuit judges have reacted favorably to the hotline." I have been told that in other courts, it would be considered very controversial," she says.

One concern among judges, even though the information is kept confidential, is that a party to a case might use health issues to challenge a judge’s decision, she says. Robert Resner works with The Other Bar, a California lawyers’ assistance program that specializes in substance abuse issues. He says that working with judges is unique, even in situations that don’t involve alcohol or drugs. Judges, he says, may find this kind of program to be a difficult pill to swallow." Basically, they’re supposed to be in control, and dealing with an issue that may show that they are human or fallible is very difficult for them," says Resner, a lawyer. He adds that among federal jurists, there’s often a sense that they can’t ask for help, because they’re supposed to be the ones who solve all the problems." The problem is they can’t deal with the situation by themselves," Resner says. "And if they could, they wouldn’t be in the situation."