Globe and Mail

Judges live in torment, study finds

Wednesday, August 14 – Online Edition, Posted at 2:06 AM EST
The Globe and Mail

London, Ont. — Tormented by isolation, gruesome courtroom evidence and relentless scrutiny, too many Canadian judges suffer the trauma of their vocation in painful silence, a judicial seminar was told Tuesday.

A U.S. psychologist who conducted interviews with 56 Canadian judges said many worried that they have become assembly-line workers who must pretend they are not hurriedly trying cases from ridiculously swollen dockets.

"Some very painful things have been said to me," said Isaiah Zimmerman. "The judges who have great difficulty are very conscientious and keep pushing and pushing.

"They don't look after themselves," said Dr. Zimmerman, a faculty member of the American Judicial College. "They don't pay attention to their emotional balance. They wind up like proto-machine humans who just grind out the decisions. It is tragic."

The toll of one particular type of stress wrenching trial evidence was dramatically illustrated during a panel session Tuesday morning, when Ontario Superior Court Chief Justice Patrick LeSage broke down in tears as he gave a speech.

Chief Justice LeSage said in an interview afterward that he has never got over viewing videotapes of murder victims Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy being tortured.

"I can control myself pretty well in the courtroom when I'm on the podium," Chief Justice LeSage said. "But when I'm in a surrounding such as this, certain things will trigger tears. You never know what it will be. The tears will just roll down my cheeks.

"I told the judges that we all have emotions; don't be embarrassed or ashamed," he added. "We all have human emotions; that is part of being human."

Chief Justice LeSage acquired legendary status in judicial circles for his handling of what was the most high-profile and arguably the most emotionally charged trial in Canadian history.

"I didn't expect that the visual depiction of crime would be so traumatic," he recalled in the interview. "It was like being hit with a sledge hammer. It was a very traumatic experience to watch a crime being committed, particularly against wonderful, young children."

Chief Justice LeSage said he actually decided to quit the case shortly after Paul Bernardo's conviction and just before a further proceeding was scheduled to determine whether Mr. Bernardo should be declared a dangerous offender.

"I concluded that I was not physically and mentally able to conduct the dangerous-offender hearing," Chief Justice LeSage said in the interview.

He said that within days of notifying the Crown and defence about his decision, both sides had drawn up a plea agreement that would preclude a dozen traumatized rape victims having to testify.

The focus of Tuesday's daylong seminar was "disturbing allegations and testimony." Approximately 150 judges including Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin heard Dr. Zimmerman say that many judges cannot witness horrific visual images of dead or maimed victims without imagining their family and friends.

"In the face of violence, we naturally identify with the victim," Dr. Zimmerman said. "There is this unconscious identification with the victim that is very powerful and can move you to not such good judgment in the course of a trial."

He said the first thing judges in a traumatic trial must do is recognize that they are having a visceral reaction to an unsavoury person, and that it is normal to wish retribution or misfortune on the apparent perpetrator.

"Admit them, don't deny them, and then process them through your proper judicial balance," he said.

Dr. Zimmerman said other judges are stricken by doubts at the moment of passing a sentence, describing it as excruciatingly difficult to pass sentences on convicted offenders. Some felt conflicted by personal, philosophical disagreements with sentencing ranges.

"A number of judges not in this country have told me: 'I come in prepared to pronounce seven years, but I open my mouth and five years comes out,' " Dr. Zimmerman said.

Many judges are overwhelmed by the size of their swollen dockets, Dr. Zimmerman said. He quoted a judge as saying: "I grind out cases like I'm on an assembly line. I have no alternative. It never occurred to me that I'd be living this kind of life before I became a judge."

Another judge told the psychologist: "During a particularly long and vexing trial, at the end of each day I would retire to chambers, sit for awhile, sometimes cry and just rest before I would go home."

Dr. Zimmerman said that many of the judges who come across as arrogant and self-inflated even those who commit misconduct are actually manifesting a reaction to stress.

He compared it to doctors who become nasty to nurses or patients when they are overworked in an emergency ward. "You have all met certain judges who are almost automatons because they are now cocooned into 'the judge' and have very little spark of humanity. It's the regression process."

He advised the judges to talk frequently to colleagues who have been through the same trauma. He said they should insist on time to be alone during and after each workday.

"Judges repeat to me again and again they must convey the emotions of humanity to not be cold fish but at the same time they must not be unduly influenced or swept over by them," Dr. Zimmerman said. "That is highly, highly difficult, and it is always at the back of their minds."

In interviews after the seminar, some judges spoke of their own traumatic cases. Ontario Court Judge Edward Ormston recalled watching videotapes last spring of two Toronto men who filmed themselves skinning a live cat.

"As a person who lived and shared his life with cats for 30 years, my first reaction was that these people should have done to them what was done to those cats," he said in an interview. "But judges don't work that way."

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