Date of this Version
Court Review, Volume 45, Issue 3, 76-89
The courtroom represents a critical component of the American justice system. The legal system asks judges and juries to deliver justice for injured parties through the cases that they decide. The assumption is that these legal decision-makers can perform these tasks rationally and fairly. This is not always an easy task, however, as the process can expose judges and jurors to a number of stressors that can have negative consequences for both the individuals and the legal system as a whole. First, some trials contain graphic evidence regarding crimes and personal injuries. Judges and jurors are captive audiences and have no choice about viewing photographs and hearing testimony concerning such violent crimes as murder, abuse, and rape. Second, the safety of both judges and jurors can sometimes be compromised during trial. For instance, a defendant in a recent trial in Boston punched a juror, leading the judge to declare a mistrial. During the defendant’s second trial, the defendant threatened to kill the jurors. Judges also have safety concerns: a judge in New York barely avoided being shot when a former defendant fired a sawed off rifle in the courtroom. Other judges have been threatened, injured, or killed while on the job. Some judges have also experienced violence outside of the courtroom; for instance, in 2005, a man killed U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow’s husband and mother as an act of retribution for her rulings.
Stress and safety concerns have the potential to affect judges’ and jurors’ performances. For instance, jurors selected for a trial involving a violent crime may experience strong emotions that make it difficult to follow the jury instructions. Judges could also let emotions affect their sentencing judgments or prevent them from making proper decisions (e.g., about impermissible testimony). Fear of retribution could affect the decisions of both judges and jurors, for example, in gang-related cases. Because stress has the potential to negatively impact the judicial system, researchers have begun to study courtroom stress. The majority of research concerns juror stress, although several studies have examined judicial stress or judges’ perceptions of their safety.
The present research is designed to expand on previous research by asking research questions concerning five related areas. First, are judges concerned about juror stress? To the degree that they are, what steps are they taking to protect jurors? Second, how do judges experience stress personally? What experiences are most stressful and how do judges cope? Third, how do judges feel about personal safety, and what do they do to protect themselves and their families? Fourth, is there a relationship between judges’ perceptions of safety and their experiences of stress? Finally, are there differences in judges’ perceptions? Specifically does one gender experience greater stress than the other? Do judges who have experienced a stressful work event (e.g., a threat) have different perceptions from those who have not? By answering these important questions, the current exploratory research can help determine what steps can be taken to protect judges and jurors from excessive stress that can impede their performance.