State program offers help to judges in crisis

Editor’s note: Washington State Patrol troopers responded to a bridge near Yakima in July 2018 for reports of a man looking over the edge. The man, Judge Doug Federspiel of Yakima ended up, involuntarily committed for treatment, but has since returned to the bench. Read that story here.

The pinnacle of achievement for most young lawyers is to ascend to the judicial bench.

You get the title. A greater level of respect.

It is a powerful job, making decisions that affect peoples’ lives every day.

But once judges don that black robe, they discover that the new status can be stressful, overly demanding and isolating.

They must watch what they do in social settings, end friendships with fellow lawyers and can no longer freely express an opinion when outside the courtroom.

And openly discussing personal struggles may be viewed as a sign of weakness, particularly in states like Washington where most judges must face election every few years.

“Everyone knows you’re a judge, so you have to comport yourself at the highest level all the time because you know that reflects on the (judicial) system ...,” said Bill Bailey, a trial attorney, professor at University of Washington School of Law and an author.

“Given the enormous power the judges have, we have made them a breed apart, and it’s a lonely job,” he said.

Judicial officers have been in the spotlight recently, on both the local and national stage.

From a Benton County District Court judge arrested after driving drunk and crashing his car to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation process for the U.S. Supreme Court.

On July 9, Judge Doug Federspiel with Yakima County Superior Court was found pacing on an Interstate 82 bridge near Selah. He told Washington State Patrol troopers he was “trying to decide whether to live or not,” according to dash cam video obtained by the Tri-City Herald.

It is not known what led Federspiel to drive out to the bridge in the middle of a workday. Court documents and recordings from his ensuing civil commitment hearings are sealed, and Federspiel did not return phone or email messages from the Herald.

But legal experts say this is why it’s key for judges to have someone to talk with about stress, mental health issues, addiction, medical illnesses, relationship turmoil or grief.

A little-known program through the Washington State Bar Association provides judicial officers with an outlet “to prevent or alleviate problems” before they jeopardize their career. And it’s all confidential.

The Judicial Assistance Services Program, or JASP, has been around for more than a decade. It has a network of 15 to 20 peer counselors who are judges at all levels across the state and are trained to provide unbiased support.

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Judge Jackie Shea Brown with Benton-Franklin County Superior Court is one of three judges on the program’s executive committee.

When judges in crisis call the program at 415-572-3803, they initially will be connected with Susanna N. Kanther, a licensed clinical health psychologist based in Bellevue.

Kanther has been working with the program since 2015 as its clinical consultant.

No records are kept for privacy reasons so she can’t give the number of calls or referrals they get in a year, but it is “a consistent number,” she said.

Sometimes it is the judge calling for herself or himself when grappling with a problem. Other times, it may be a judicial colleague, court employee or lawyer who is concerned about a judge and believes someone may need to intervene.

“Really this is for judges just trying to figure out challenges on the bench or even at home ...,” said Kanther. “The (daily) challenges that everyday people face but because of their status, because of their special position, they might have a little more trouble finding that help. So they can call us confidentially.”

Kanther discusses the caller’s concern with the chair of the executive committee and decides which peer counselor might be a good fit for that judge.

If she thinks a judge needs more support, Kanther will hook them up with a psychologist or psychotherapist in their own community or she may work with the judge through her own practice.

“Often it’s really about commiserating, getting validation, getting support, getting perspective, and a new perspective sometimes,” she said.

The judiciary is one of those professions, like physicians and pilots, that if it becomes public knowledge a person is dealing with mental stress they could be shamed, reprimanded or even lose their job.

That’s why she emphasizes that the program is not a tattle-tale program or for judicial complaints.

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“Again, because of their status and the expectation that we have of someone in a position like that, they have to keep that to themselves and conceal that,” said Kanther. “So we are there to allow them to open up and take a deep breath.”

“We’re on your side, we want to help you work this out and, if there is an issue, it’s better to get help from us ... and help mitigate problems before they get more attention,” she added.

The program is not connected to the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, and does not share information with the state bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

The judicial conduct commission is an independent agency that works to protect the integrity of the judicial process and promote public confidence in the courts by enforcing ethics rules for judges.

While the majority of their independent investigations are for alleged ethical violations, Executive Director Reiko Callner said the constitution also allows the commission to look at allegations of disability or incapacity with a judicial officer.

The issue is whether the cognitive problem — such as Alzheimer’s disease — is permanent or is likely to become permanent and will seriously interfere with the performance of judicial duties.

Callner said they are empowered to order a professional forensic evaluation at the commission’s expense.

If the expert finds something that affects the judge’s job, the commission either can hold confidential proceedings to negotiate voluntary retirement or take it to a contested hearing before the state Supreme Court.

Until the commission takes action, investigations into judges are not made public. So it is unclear if Judge Federspiel’s struggles in July have been reported to the commission or are being looked into.

Bailey, the UW professor, said what’s difficult is you don’t want to “break human beings with the stresses of the job,” and then tell someone they can’t be a judge anymore because they are broken.

Depression afflicts about one-third of the legal profession, said Bailey, who believes that mental health shouldn’t be treated any differently than physical health concerns with judges.

Instead of rushing to stigmatize that person, they should be given the opportunity to try to treat their issue first, he said.

Mary Pat Treuthart, a professor at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, agreed. A licensed attorney in Pennsylvania, she also chairs the Disability Rights Washington board.

If a judicial officer is experiencing some challenges and needs help, society should be supporting that need rather than discouraging it, Treuthart said.

There is a lot of pressure on judges and their jobs are under the public’s magnifying glass, so they need mechanisms to connect with others without fear of retribution.

“I think we’re starting to break down the stereotypes about mental illness ...,” said Treuthart. “In today’s world with the range of treatment modalities, people can live very productive lives and get back to their own baseline.”

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer