The Power of Compassion in the Court: Healing on both sides of the bench (TJ Court Craft Series #15)

Judge Jamey Hueston (retired), Co-Convenor of the Judicial Outreach Group of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence writes…

It is an occupational reality that judges are frequently exposed to disturbing cases involving human misery and anguishing circumstances that can wear on their psyche.

Traditional Legal culture expects judges to remain stoically neutral and unemotional while rendering fair decisions. However, it is unreasonable to expect judges to be indifferent to distressing matters or be unaffected by the suffering they hear.

Exposure to dramatic accounts of cruelty and harm has a detrimental impact on physical and emotional health.  

Large caseloads and the inherent isolation of life on the bench can also contribute stress. Judges are at risk for developing secondary trauma.

Despite the frequently trying nature of judicial service, judges are in the enviable position to positively affect the life conditions of the citizenry before them. 

Judicial compassion is the tool to accomplish that desired result.  It offers the means to confront difficult emotions of others and understand their suffering with the desire to relieve it.  

Compassion can be a healing instrument enabling judges to resolve conflicts before the court effectively while experiencing positive emotions.

Training in the use of therapeutic and compassionate approaches will enable judges to craft healthier outcomes for those appearing before the court while cogently relieving judicial trauma.

COMPASSION IN ACTION 

Drug Courts demonstrate the beneficial impact of judicial compassion at work by employing techniques to positively transform seriously addicted drug offenders into drug-free and contributing citizens. Judicial involvement is considered one of the seminal factors in promoting participant recovery by therapeutically motivating participant improvement and removing barriers to the achievement of goals. 

Drug courts embody solution-oriented, relational judging, instead of linear, “business as usual” case-processing. 

They are compassion at work and judicial job satisfaction and praise of the drug court assignment is high.

Compassion techniques need not be the exclusive property of drug courts. Compassion techniques can be used in big and small ways in all courts.

THE SCIENCE OF COMPASSION 

Neuroscientific research provides compelling evidence to support the use of compassion as a viable strategy. Research supports that helping behavior, as reflected in drug courts, is associated with beneficial health outcomes to the helper, including reduced mortality. Researchers have also charted measurable changes in neural responses in brain functions related to understanding the suffering of others and increased abilities to help others while governing individual emotions.  Importantly, connecting with others, may help the judge develop resilience to stress and serve as a buffer to constant courtroom tensions. 

TRAINING

It is incumbent on judicial administration to provide judges with education and training regarding potential hazards, scope, symptoms and consequences of secondary trauma, as well as strategies to mitigate the damage of its insidious effects. 

A robust compassion curriculum will also inform judges regarding the benefits and techniques of mindfulness; meditation, therapeutic justice; procedural fairness; judicial engagement; and underlying scientific research supporting these components.

The important compassion training component will harness the judge’s desire to help others into a potent channel for administering justice by enhancing their cognitive understanding of the perspectives of others.

Training will educate judges to strategically direct their emotions and remain solution focused even when their patience is tested in contentious matters.  It will also aid judges to recognize the potential effects of constant negative exposure to their psyches and health and take steps to mitigate its scope, symptoms and damage. 

Even brief training in compassion, meditation and related techniques of several weeks have produced positive results.  In return, the rewards are substantial.  Years of contemplation and study to cultivate compassion techniques are not required; just the willingness. 

THE CONCLUDING POWER OF COMPASSION

The public deserves and depends on our best judicial decisions, uncompromised by occupational threats caused by secondary trauma.  Judicial use of compassionate, integrative methods in appropriate matters yields important benefits to litigants by fostering confidence and satisfaction in the judicial process.  At the same time, these methods help the judge maintain emotional well-being. The potential benefits of using compassion techniques in company with other therapeutic strategies far outweighs the comfort of the status quo. It commends a more expansive approach to enrich judicial decision making and impartiality. 

Opportunities to integrate compassion present at almost every stage of a case for judges who choose to solve and not just resolve.

Judge Jamey Hueston implemented and administered the Baltimore City Drug Court for 20 years. She also founded the Maryland Office of Problem Solving Courts, one of the first state-wide drug court oversight offices in the country and is a pioneer founder of the National Association of Drug Court Professional. She lectures regarding meditation, compassion and court craft practices.

Read the full article “The Power of Compassion in the Court” by Judge Hueston and Judge Miriam Hutchins here

And read more about the science of compassion and how to cultivate it here

The TJ Court Craft Series provides practical insights and tools for judges interested in therapeutic jurisprudence, problem solving or solution-focused approaches.  Read other blog posts in the Court Craft Series here.

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