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More Stress, Coping With Loss: Pandemic Exacts Toll on Judges

Dec. 28, 2020, 11:00 AM

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on judges who are experiencing anxiety and coping with the loss of colleagues who died from Covid-19.

Virtual proceedings and socially-distancing have isolated judges who already work an often solitary job.

“People feel very vulnerable, and it’s been exhausting,” said Mary Greenwood, the administrative presiding justice of the California Court of Appeals’ sixth appellate district. Judges are like everyone else, she said: “We can get depressed.”

Judges who used to be able to talk to colleagues about the normal stresses of their job, like a difficult case or decision, are now at home, away from the in-court environment, said Jeremy Fogel, a former U.S. district court judge and executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute. During the pandemic, Fogel and a psychology professor colleague at Berkeley have given presentations to courts on anxiety management.

“What I’ve heard from judges is that this period has caused them a lot of personal stress,” said Fogel. “There’s a lot of additional anxiety and a lot of additional worry.”

Learning to Cope

Fogel and his colleague Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley psychology professor, teamed up to present a program to several courts designed to show judges how to use tools, like meditation and gratitude to help manage anxiety and deal with their emotions.

The duo was also interviewed for a Federal Judicial Center podcast on judicial health and well-being for judges during Covid-19.

That presentation has been given to both federal and state courts during the pandemic and sometimes include other court staff.

Roughly 40 appellate justices attended Fogel and Keltner’s virtual program for the California Court of Appeals, Greenwood said. The program was about an hour and a half long and focused on identifying the issues that judges face and how to deal with them, she said.

“People found it extremely helpful,” Greenwood said. It was helpful for them to know they weren’t the only one, she said.

Experiencing Loss

For some courts, the pandemic has also meant the loss of colleagues. Georgia has lost five judges to the virus, with probate courts hit particularly hard.

Twenty-one judges and 24 clerks were infected, and three probate court judges’ and a probate clerk have died. Probate court judges have been vulnerable to the virus because of the nature of their work, serving at risk communities such as the elderly or people with mental illness, said Kelli Wolk, president of the Georgia Council of Probate Court Judges.

“That is a huge impact to our ability to do the work, but it’s also a huge impact to the people who are dealing with the court because they’re afraid to come into the courthouse,” Wolk said.

Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson was the first Georgia probate court judge to die in April. Wolk remembers Stephenson for her ability to make a lot of people “belly laugh.” Jon Payne, Chattooga County Probate judge, died in August. He was “bright red cheeked and opinionated,” Wolk said.

Brantley County Probate Judge Karen Batten died in October, and was so “committed to her county and her community” that she made arrangements to cover her absence “even in her last days of her illness.”

In addition to the emotional toll the virus took, it slowed down a court system that was already “very lean.” When one staffer tested positive, 17 people had to quarantine—leading to one person in the Intensive Care Unit, one person losing 20 pounds, and two people losing their sense of smell, Wolk said.

The irony of the grief the Georgia probate courts have experienced is not lost on Wolf. “The probate court serves people in moments of loss and moments of grief all day every day,” Wolf said. “The fact that we are now a family experiencing our own loss” reminds the court staff that “the files coming across our desk are actual human beings with families and colleagues and friends.”

Focus on Well-being

Judicial wellness was a growing focus for federal and state courts, but the pandemic accelerated that, Fogel said.

Most federal circuits include wellness programming at their conferences, and several have wellness committees, like the First, Third, Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits, he said. Fogel also said he worked with two state courts on wellness prior to the virus.

Fogel said he hopes more judges will use mindfulness as a tool beyond the pandemic and that in the most positive light, maybe the pandemic helped focus more attention on self-care.

“It’s not a group that is typically very introspective,” Fogel said. “I think this is a situation where they’ve had to be more.”

Greenwood said she wishes well-being training were made widely available for more judges, like those on trial courts who are still dealing with heavy caseloads and sometimes even in-person proceedings during the pandemic. “They’re like hospitals, the traffic in those courts right now is high,” she said.

“Judges feel the stress of needing to make good decisions under the law and administering justice against really difficult odds right now,” Greenwood said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at; John Crawley at