The Role Of The Judge In Specialized Courts

A common feature of specialized courts is the problem-solving strategy in which the judge occupies a central role in a team process (Fritzler and Simon, 2000b). Strong and cohesive judicial leadership is essential to the success of court programs (Harrell et al., 2000). The judge represents a respected authority figure and has responsibility for all legal and treatment-related actions undertaken. Many see the judge's most important contribution as a case manager at the center of the treatment process. He or she has regularly scheduled contacts with participants, encouraging progress and responding to performance with graduated rewards and sanctions. Many believe that court users benefit therapeutically from the special relationship with the judge, both during and after adjudication (T. Merrigan, personal communication, June 7, 2001). Judge William Schma, Circuit Judge in Kalamazoo, Michigan, describes his experience presiding as a drug court judge:

My experience is that so many people in the court system have been beaten down for so long by society and by the court system that they don't expect to receive respect from the judge. When the judge, in particular, believes in them, it has a profound impact because of prior negative experiences they have experienced. Offenders respond to a judge who has expressed an interest in helping them and is not threatening. People come back to see me all the time. I let them know that they can tell me if they are using without punitive consequences, and they tell me if they are using. They are willing to be open with me because all they have experienced before appearing in my court has been a punitive criminal justice system. Because this is a positive and not a negative relationship, they accept consequences readily. Once they have been given the experience with a positive judge, they accept the consequences that may include putting them in prison, which I have done; and they thank me for it. The judge creates for offenders what people ordinarily experience in healthy relationships: There needs to be trust, the setting of limits, and insistence on personal responsibility. In this context, the consequences are expected without whining. Denial is not helpful to them. They can start being honest.

Their social relationship with the judge reinforces their recovery. (W. Schma, personal communication, March 16, 2001)

Judge Peggy Fulton Hora, a Superior Court Judge in Alameda County, California, also has observed the powerful effect drug court judges can have on offenders before them:

Judges in drug courts are successful because they are in a position of authority and they care. People see the judge as an empathic person who cares, and they want to please the judge. Offenders need praise. One guy said, 'I got my nudge from the judge.' When you see what addicts go through to change, you begin to see your own problems. One person who worked in the courtroom said that she had a hard enough time staying on a diet, and was impressed with how drug addicts are able to break the habit. It may be that judges are just human and are responding in a human way. (P. Hora, personal communication, March 21, 2001)

Judge Randal Fritzler, District Court Judge in Vancouver, Washington, sees the therapeutic role of the judge differently depending on the subject matter of the court.

The therapeutic role of the judge was not as clear in the domestic violence court. I see it more in the mental health court. I found domestic violence offenders to be very manipulative and deceptive. Because the offense of domestic violence is looked down on in society, the offenders feel that they have to hide their offenses. They lie to themselves and everyone else. Mental health court is different. People bring me Valentines on Valentine's Day. They want to please me. If they miss a court day, they come in a few days later and apologize. Mentally ill offenders respect the fact that I am wearing a black robe. The idea of someone in authority that cares about them is very powerful in these cases. Some sort of bonding seems to occur. (R. Fritzler, personal communication, March 19, 2001)

In addition to therapeutic benefits to offenders, judges themselves benefit therapeutically from participation in therapeutic courts such as drug courts. In their study, Chase and Hora (2000) observe that drug treatment court judicial officers are significantly more likely than family law court judicial officers to have stopped drinking or using other substances. Drug treatment court officers are significantly more likely than family court officers to witness change for the better in the litigants, and this highly correlates with job satisfaction.

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