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'Roundtables' help judges support each other

By Chief Judge Richard S. Brown, Wisconsin Court of Appeals

Chief Judge Richard S. Brown
Chief Judge Richard S. Brown

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Richard S. Brown and State Bar of Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program Director Linda Albert co-presented with a judge and court administrator from New York state at the annual National Conference of Lawyer Programs in Nashville on Oct. 9.

The subject of the presentation was Judicial Roundtables - Building Community Among Judges. Judicial Roundtables grew out of a hospital-based program at the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare to give medical clinicians an opportunity to discuss the emotionally challenging aspects of their work with each other.

The roundtables became so popular that they were replicated by other medical facilities. Paul Curtin of the New York Court Administration office and Judge John Rowley, Chair of the New York State Judicial Wellness Committee, decided to see if these roundtables would be beneficial for judges.

About two dozen roundtables were held all over New York state and, as a result, Curtin and Rowley were able to learn what made the roundtables thrive and what did not. They developed a model for use by others. But they wanted to see two more states implement roundtables and share experiences to determine if the roundtables produced the same results or variable results.

Rowley, who also served as co-chair of the American Bar Association's (ABA) Commission on Legal Assistance Programs (CoLAP) with Brown, brought up the idea with Brown.

Recalling the helplessness and distress that he and many other judges felt after learning their friend and colleague, the late Judge Dennis J. Barry, Racine County Circuit Court, had killed himself in 2011, Brown agreed to try implementing a pilot program in Wisconsin.

Albert enthusiastically became involved in the effort, and the Wisconsin project was soon underway. Tennessee and Michigan later joined the effort. The goal was to have judges talk among themselves about things they don't normally talk to each other about in order to promote mental health and wellness.

The Oct. 9 presentation detailed Wisconsin's experience, which included two roundtables conducted between the time that Wisconsin agreed to take part and the conference presentation. Brown and Albert explained that the first roundtable was held during a day-long district administrative and educational meeting. The format was not conducive because the time was short and the judges were in business mode.

When asked, for example, "How does this impact you as a person?" or "What kinds of feelings did you experience when this happened?" the judges wanted to focus on problems within the system.

So, for the next roundtable, the format was changed. New questions proved to elicit good discussion among the judges on a personal level. And it was at a remote location away from the courthouse, with no business meetings looming.

But most striking of all was a 10-minute talk at the beginning by Barry's son, who had been shocked by what his father did. He said no one saw it coming. Only after the fact did he learn that his dad, as well regarded and popular as he was, was in the throes of depression with no one to talk to and feeling the stigma of perceived weakness should he reach out.

He wished the roundtables had been around when his father was alive. The judges in attendance were moved and they started opening up about the isolation of the job, the feeling that we have to wear our robe 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the belief that after awhile, you lose your first name. Every participant came away with positive feedback for the roundtables and wanted to do it again and replicate the ideas statewide – an idea Brown and Albert hope to accomplish.

While judges may be problem solvers in black robes, we are also human beings with psychological needs of our own. Given the position that judges occupy in our society and the stigma around disclosure to others, it is important to have each other. Nobody is perfect and the roundtables are a good way to discuss the stresses of life in the courtroom and out, beyond the weight of public expectation. Of course, there's no way of knowing, but it is a question to ponder: If Barry had had a support system, including more colleagues to talk to, would he be with us now?

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