Living With a Judge

by Fiona H. Travis, Ph.D.

The following article was adapted from Dr. Travis' books, Living With Lawyers; Understanding The Lawyer in Your Life and Should You Marry a Lawyer?  A Couples’ Guide to Balancing Work, Love and Ambition.

“The Judge, even when he is free, is still not wholly free. He is not to innovate at his pleasure. He is not a knight-errant roaming at will in pursuit of his own ideal of beauty and goodness. He is to draw his inspiration from consecrated principles.”

Benjamin Cardozo, The Nature of The Judicial Process (1921)

The quote above, although written nearly a century ago, is still the nature of the judicial process for most judges. Judges use legal knowledge to make decisions based on their understanding of the law. This is not as easy as it may sound.

Moving from a career in advocacy to the role of an impartial, objective, and fair judge can be a challenge for many.  Law school education trains lawyers to be verbal gladiators, whether on paper or in oral argument.  Research shows that many lawyers have the personality to fit such a practice of law.  However, not all lawyers possess the necessary judicial temperament to be a judge. This, in itself, can produce stress.  

Judicial decisions are always subject to criticism and the majority of the public does not understand how the law works. Therefore, it is quite often that many people interpret a judicial decision as unfair. Few people, outside of the legal profession, really understand Benjamin Cardozo's concept.

For several years, I led seminars titled "Transitional Stress for New Judges."  These were sponsored by the Supreme Court of Ohio Judicial College, and the following quotes are responses from new Ohio judges to the question:  "What do you find stressful about your new position as a judge?”

"The shift from a position of advocacy to one that is impartial and unbiased."

"Living in the public 'fish bowl.' "

"Emphasis on being reasonable and prudent."

"Maintaining the judicial image."

"Insecurity of an elected position."

"Suppressing feelings and exemplifying judicial temperament."

"Making many decisions quickly, efficiently, and wisely every day."

"Sense of isolation, especially from my previous colleagues."

"Others expect me to be 'all knowing' and wise."

"Having to run for election."

"Concerns about security for me and my family, at work and at home."

Stress was also seen quite differently depending where the judge lived.  Those from less populated counties reported differently than those living in larger metropolitan areas.  For example, in smaller towns, the stress might be that everyone knows who you are so there is a lack of privacy.  In the cities the stress might be that nobody knows or cares who you are, and this may not be the best situation for the election process.  

As spouses of judges, it is important to become aware of not only the stress the judge faces but how that stress affects those living with him/her.  Some judges may never perceive they are stressed.  They may be working under many deadlines with many things to accomplish in very little time.  The tension can be readily observed by everyone around him/her, but the judge may not perceive him/herself as being stressed.  “I am not stressed; I am just running out of time."   Those of us living with judges and receive the “stress spin off” see it a little differently.

The American Bar Association has reported on the effect becoming a judge has on judicial spouses.  Some felt their lives enhanced.  “She works fewer hours.”  “There is a new status in the community.”   “We see new people.”   Others felt deprived.  “He works longer hours.”   “We cannot entertain fellow lawyers like we once did.”   “She tells me to avoid certain issues because of ethical considerations."  These reactions indicate that the position of judge brings a variety of changes to the lives of their spouse and family.

Children also reflect feelings about how their lives are altered when a parent becomes a judge.  One child said, “When dad was an attorney, we entertained informally.  Now that he is a judge, he is a stuffed shirt, and entertainment is stiff and formal.”  Another said, “My grades have improved at school since my mother became a judge, but it is not because I am a better student.”

Occasionally, judges must feel they have lost their names.  People call him/her "Judge," as in "Hello, Judge. How are you?"  This is done mainly out of respect for the office and judicial institution, but I wonder if being constantly referred to by title, reinforces what the judge does rather than who the judge is.

I feared, at first, that our young grandsons would call my husband "Judge," but fortunately that did not occur.  In fact, the title and honor that comes with being a judge, does not always make sense to young children. When our older grandson, Nathan, was five, he accompanied me into the courtroom to observe a trial. When the prosecuting attorney objected to something said by the defense lawyer, he stood up, raised his voice, and loudly said “Your Honor, I object."  To a five-year-old it sounded like the lawyer was angry with the judge.  Nathan, a bit startled by this, turned to me and immediately asked, also quite loudly, “Why is he calling him 'Your Honor?'  He is my grandfather!”

This impacted me in a different way. Suddenly realizing that the spectators in the courtroom now knew who our grandson was, I must confess I became anxious as we left the area and went down the elevator.  My spouse had been a prosecutor prior to becoming a judge, and I was well aware of the many threats judges and their families receive.  There was a fleeting moment of anxiety that someone might try to grab my grandson.  It was fleeting, but the thought did cross my mind.

Being a judge is an honorable position, but it also carries a major responsibility that requires a great deal of wisdom and integrity.  Judges make life-altering decisions on a daily basis.   Remember one of those unique stresses reported in my seminars,” Making many decisions quickly, efficiently, and wisely every day?”  This can be stressful.  Ohio has a judicial mentoring program, and I believe it is a very helpful tool for new judges.  If newly elected or appointed, encourage your spouse to participate in the program to the fullest.

Since Ohio judges are lawyers by training, most have lawyer attributes.  These include being competitive, intelligent, and articulate.  When I was writing my first book and interviewing spouses, I asked one spouse the question, “What do you like the most about being married to a lawyer?”  Those three words were her answer.  When I asked what she liked least about living with her lawyer-husband, she paused, smiled, and said the same three words.  I found this to be an interesting example of how being competitive, intelligent, and articulate may be a double-edged sword for those of us who live with lawyers and judges. 

One day, I got a call from my husband, and he was chuckling.  He had been having a discussion with his staff attorney when he realized they were not discussing a case, they were arguing.  He could not wait to tell me he laughed with his staff attorney as he exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, this is what my wife has been saying.”  He finally understood what I had been talking about in my seminars for spouses of lawyers and judges.  Lawyers like to argue!  It can be confusing to both judges and spouses to understand that the legal training and personality makeup that create strong advocates in the courtroom are the same traits that sometimes make emotional intimacy elusive in personal relationships.

Unless appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States or a federal judgeship where one’s term is for life, an Ohio judge has to face the election process.  Although judges are non-partisan, most are endorsed by one of two major political parties, and, therefore, politics does become involved in the process.  Judicial races are different from other contested elections where controversial issues may be crucial and often debated.  The Code of Judicial Conduct is very strict.  The Canons are designed to insure that judges remain unbiased and objective, and they prohibit judicial candidates from speaking about certain issues.  Therefore, judicial races are not always interesting; some even consider them boring.  The Canons have changed somewhat in recent years, allowing judges to address certain matters, but, in general, judicial candidates are generally not as outspoken as other candidates and, therefore, are often not as well known as other elected office holders. 

Many people do not even vote for judges.  Why?  Perhaps it is for the above reason, the races are not too "exciting."   It may be many people believe their lives will not be affected by the court system, or it may even be that many perceive judges to be aloof, far removed, and really not connected to the people in general.  The judicial system can be intimidating, and many people are not really aware of what judges do.  Today there is court television and some popular judicial personalities, but these are primarily designed to entertain, not necessarily educate.  People still often misunderstand the judicial process, especially when a judge's decision or opinion is not what they think it should be.  This public misunderstanding can cause discomfort for the judge and the family.

Stress and all, I have found that living with a judge has been quite positive.  For me personally, it has been an honor to live with a judge.  My husband served a combination of 15 years on the common pleas and appellate court benches.  It has not always been easy, and the election process and political activities were the most difficult for us.  The first time he ran, I really enjoyed the campaign process.  I can honestly say, he never has enjoyed the politics involved.  That aside, I can say to the families of judges, it has been a great experience for me.  And to my husband of nearly 45 years, Judge Alan Travis, “Without a doubt, for the last 15 years, to put it quite simply, it has truly been my honor, Your Honor!”