Thursday, March 26, 2020

Remember It's Contagious

These are times of stress. Stress in the Time of COVID begins to address that reality. There is a need in such times to understand stress and the effects it can have on us both physically and mentally. There are lawyers, doctors, therapists, case managers, and more who are struggling with doubts and challenges right now. They worry about the injured workers, their businesses, their employees. It is a challenging time. 

I have spoken with some in our workers' compensation community who worry about whether they can remain open and operational. They worry about how long they can make payroll. One recently described to me the productivity challenges with some employees who are frankly distracted by the onslaught of daily news and information about COVID-19. Some are doing nothing right now but striving to remain current on the latest information. Life can be distracting.

The bottom line is that there is ample stress and challenge for us all. 

A judge in Cleveland appears to have allowed that stress to get the better of her. It is possible, alternatively, that this judge simply lacks decorum or compassion in a general sense and that has merely been illuminated by the current situation. Some people lose their cool and we question if they should be judges

According to Cleveland.com, Municipal Judge Pinkley Carr has been temporarily relieved of some responsibilities pending an investigation. The Ohio Supreme Court is said to be looking into her intemperate behavior on the bench. The present situation stems from the COVID-19 situation, and its impact on the legal community and process in Cleveland. 

The news reports that the chief judge in Cleveland ordered that certain proceedings should be postponed because of COVID-19. That postponement led an assistant public defender to later raise its effects with Judge Carr. The setting was a court hearing in which Judge Carr allegedly issued "several arrest warrants" for some "who did not show up to court hearings." There are those who perceive the judge thereby as ignoring the Chief Judge's order, which was said to be published on the Court's website. 

The appearance is that the public received information from the Internet and the Chief Judge. Whether because of that information or some other reason, some thereafter elected not to appear for court. And, Judge Carr decided to have them arrested for not appearing. In one of those actions. Cleveland.com reports that an appellate court had to instruct Judge Carr to honor the Chief Judge's order. That is what appellate courts are for; they bring broader, decentralized authority to legal questions and correct error. 

When the public defender (PD) questioned Judge Carr's issuance of warrants for those not appearing, and asked if its clients could be advised not to present at the courthouse, Judge Carr allegedly told the PD not to call its clients. She allegedly reiterated that if the clients appeared, she was prepared to address their respective cases. In an interview, she characterized her efforts as a service to those who did show up. That, if true, is commendable. Being on the bench and available in this crisis is virtuous in my opinion and illustrates the true spirit of public service. Issuing arrest warrants for those who follow the Chief Judge's order; well maybe not so much. 

The PD also questioned whether the Judge was concerned with the COVID situation. Judge Carr's alleged response might be seen by some as sarcastic or insensitive (“Hi,” she reportedly said. “For the third time, I will be here. If people show up, I am here.”). But, after the PD departed, the Judge also "mocked" the PD in comments to "courtroom staff," and referred to the PD as "little idiot.”

The Ohio SupremeCourt Chief Justice reportedly "stripped Carr of her authority to hear any criminal and traffic cases" temporarily. The Cleveland.com story says that Court is now considering the merits of "an emergency motion" to "disqualify her from" various cases involving the Public Defender. The Judge is said to be a nine-year veteran of the bench. 

Lawyers were critical of Judge Carr in their remarks. One asserted that her "actions put lives in danger and violated the public trust in a time of global crisis.” The efforts of the Chief Judge were perceived as "protecting those in the court system, . . . and their families.” Another lawyer commented that "the safety of the community" should be "a priority" for the legal profession, including judges. It seems the community did not perceive Judge Carr's efforts in being there as commendable, perhaps because of the actions and attitude.  

There are various video clips included in the news stories. The modern age is one in which video recording has become commonplace. But, in the broader context, the fact is that the public has always been drawn to watching how public servants perform. The parties, lawyers, and witnesses in our workers' compensation proceedings deserve dignity and respect when they appear. This system of dispute resolution actually belongs to them, not to judges or mediators. No one deserves to be publicly mocked or demeaned. 

The responsibility we have is to mediate and adjudicate those disputes efficiently and effectively. That those disputes, and people's lives generally, may be stressful and complex must remain in our consideration. In a time of crisis, our demeanor and patience may be particularly tested. We must remember that those who appear before us are likewise perhaps being tested and challenged. Tempers may be short, patience may be thin, and frustrations may run high. Lawyers owe themselves and each other the same focus on professionalism. They must strive in adversity to avoid ad hominem (personal) attacks. Keep the case about the case, and not about the people in it (parties or litigants). 

Everyone owes it to themselves and others to strive to reduce stress. Name calling has no place among us. Accommodation and cooperation epitomize professionalism. Our ready and persistent goal of professionalism must be our collective practice. When times of crisis occur, it is incumbent upon us all to re-double our efforts in that regard. We owe each other respect and patience, even when times are tough and frustrating. 

These are challenging times. As we strive with stress and uncertainty, let us remember that those around us are likewise perhaps struggling. Without knowing the details of their personal situation (kids, loved ones, jobs, businesses, commitments, etc.), may we all agree to simply assume for the time being that others are struggling? Can we find compassion and concern for each other? If we can, hopefully that professionalism will be contagious. We can tear down or build up; each of us must decide. Be well, stay safe.