Justice Judy Prescribes Poetry

By Hon. Judith Lanzinger

So, Judge, you have been on the bench for a while. You have mastered the law and created a routine that governs most of your daily cases. If you are in a high-volume jurisdiction you may begin to see the same litigants and wonder if anything you do makes a difference. If you are the sole judge in a jurisdiction you can be overwhelmed with an unmanageable workload. If you are in a multi-judge court, administrative matters may absorb extraordinary time and energy. You may not have the court resources you need for your judiciary and are plagued by financial concerns. Maybe you are depressed or anxious because of health concerns or looming retirement.

While normal stress can be acceptable and encourage us to perform, undue stress can cause us to be less than judicial. We may find ourselves snapping at our staff, rude to attorneys or their clients, impatient with jurors and witnesses. When our patience has frayed or we are the only ones right we are susceptible to the disease of “robeitis,” which, in its fatal stages, can lead to judicial discipline.

As a judge now for more than 30 years, I am aware of both the boredom of routine, the rigors of handling complex cases and other factors that stress judicial life. But there are ways to put problems in perspective. I believe that reading poetry can be one such way. The NJC is offering a webcast on “Poetry as Judicial Medicine” on Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. EST to discuss these very issues.

Judges are legal readers and writers, words are our stock in trade. We interpret ambiguous statutes and contracts filled with tedious legal cliché rather than poetry. We may become so finely focused on what we do that we see the world through the limited abstract lens of the law. We emphasize legal authority, clarity and precision in our daily work. But if we do not let in nuance, the messy irresolution of life and all of its feelings, we may give up too much. We may forget how to be human.

Poetry is more than rhyme, rhythm, meter and metaphor that we studied at school. Our old thoughts like “poetry makes no sense,” “it has no value,” “I don’t have time to read it,” can be changed now that we are adults. Poetry is fresh and opens up the mind to experiences in a new way, leading us as judges to become more empathetic and better able to serve others in our courts.

The webcast will present participants with forty poems and allow them to share favorite poets if they have them, and to discover some if they don’t. We will also consider ways to begin a collection of poetry that speaks to judges in particular. The overall goal is to present poetry as a tool for judicial stress relief.

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