Mental and Physical Capacity for the Office

This is sixth in a series of posts highlighting my experience in each of the ten factors in evaluating a judicial candidate, as suggested by C. Dale McClain, a former President of the Pennsylvania Bar Association in a 2009 blog post:

1. Legal ability. 

2. Trial or other similar experience that ensures knowledge of the law and courtroom procedures.

3. A record and reputation for excellent character and integrity

4. Financial responsibility. 

5. Judicial temperament. 

6. Mental and physical capacity to fulfill the duties of judicial office. 

7. Record of community involvement. 

8. Administrative ability. 

9. Devotion to improvement of the quality of justice. 

10. Demonstrated sound judgment in professional life. 

In McClain's post, he describes mental and physical capacity in more detail:

6. Mental and physical capacity to fulfill the duties of judicial office. A candidate should be in good mental and physical health. Good mental health also includes an absence of erratic behavior that would affect the candidate's ability to be a fair and impartial judge.

None of us is perfect. As I talk to my clients about how it feels to go through a family law case, such as a divorce or a custody dispute, many worry about how a judge might view their depression or anxiety. I am glad to assure them that our local judges are very aware that going through a life change such as a divorce is a time that hits many of us hard and that I've never seen anyone lose custody or parenting time over depression or anxiety, so long as the person is managing the situation in a healthy way (for example, with counseling, medication, etc.). 

I'm all too aware of the toll that stress can take on lawyers and other similar helping professions. On September 5, 2015, my cousin, Eric Berg, who was a young lawyer in Detroit, took his own life due in part to struggles with mental health. Eric was one of five children in his family and his death has devastated his immediate and extended family.  

 Eric Berg

Eric Berg

In honor of Eric, I spend part of one class every semester that I teach at the IU Maurer School of Law talking about the rates of substance use disorder and mental health concerns among lawyers and discuss the excellent work done by the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Project (JLAP). JLAP is there as a resource to help judges, lawyers, and law students seek early and confidential intervention to ensure compassionate help and to ensure clients aren't left in the lurch when an attorney is unable to handle a case.

After Eric's death, I realized that I needed to get serious about managing my own depression, which had begun after the death of my mother at age sixty-three in 2010, when I had three young children. I take medication for depression and I'm fortunate it helps. I know many struggle to find the right medication or face stigma and are reluctant to take medication. I believe that I have the mental capacity to do the job.

Physical capacity, to me, means whether one is able to perform the functions needed of a judge. That means the ability to listen to parties in court, the concentration to draft orders, and the stamina to work the hours necessary. Many judges have proven the job can be done by those of varying physical ability, including those who use wheelchairs, crutches, or other assistive devices. I'm overweight and strong and resilient and I have a lot of energy. I have high blood pressure, which I manage with exercise and medication. I'm not worried about my physical capacity to do the job.

Catherine Stafford