BERKELEY, Calif. (CN) – Former federal judge Jeremy Fogel started a firestorm when he ruled that California’s execution procedures were unconstitutionally harsh back in 2006. Despite the hundreds of angry emails and letters, he said he’s glad it happened before Twitter took off.
“I’m so grateful that happened before anyone had heard of social media,” he told a room full of lawyers, colleagues and law students at UC Berkeley Law on Wednesday.
Fogel was speaking at an event co-hosted by Berkeley Law and the National Constitution Center on how judges deal with stress, public scrutiny, and the emotional pressure of the job.
Social media, Fogel said, has been an incredible added stressor for judges.
“I don’t know of any judges who wake up and read Twitter and figure that’s how they’re going to decide their cases that day. But what’s happened is it’s harder and harder to insulate yourself from what’s going on in the community. You see the stuff people are saying and the ways people are receiving things, and in some ways it imbeds itself in your consciousness,” he said.
“There is literally nowhere to hide,” Fogel added. “And you have people who don’t understand what you’re doing. It’s an added stressor to know there’s this chatter going on and so much of it is not informed. That’s not to take away from the public’s right to have opinions. We need to do a better job of explaining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But the fact is there’s a lot of disinformation and misinformation.”
Tuning out can be a good way to cope, said U.S. Senior District Judge Charles Breyer. On a recent cycling trip, he said he refrained from reading the news or watching television.
“And I felt better because there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “It’s a good idea to detach yourself.”
Breyer said he doesn’t use social media. “I wouldn’t even know how to do it,” he laughed.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, unlike Breyer, is an active Twitter user.
“It gives the public an insight into the judiciary. When you’re accessible, the public gets an insight they otherwise wouldn’t have.” Still, she says, it’s disconcerting to see herself being attacked on a nationwide level for her rulings.
“I became an appellate judge in 2001, and if I wrote an opinion maybe the paper picked it up in Houston. Now I wake up and I go to Twitter because that’s the first thing I do in the morning and there it is. That brings stress. I’m being criticized in Kentucky or wherever,” she said.
The judges seemed to agree that criticism comes with the territory. Judges can no longer “hide behind their robes,” said panel moderator Michael Lewis, who wrote the best-selling “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.” He asked Breyer and Guzman, the two current sitting judges, about common misconceptions the public has about their jobs.
“That there aren’t always black and white answers,” Guzman said, “particularly when you’re looking at complex legal issues and you’re looking at the rights of both sides. And I think the public expects an answer, that this is absolutely right or wrong.”
Breyer said people often forget the judges must follow the law as written and not inject personal feelings.
“What’s not factored into public acceptance of the judge’s decision is the judge took an oath to follow the law and the judge has to follow that law,” he said. “If the law dictates it, a judge has a sworn duty to follow it, and I think that’s not generally recognized by the public when a story is reported.”
Scrutiny, or even direct attacks on social media, doesn’t mean judges shouldn’t close themselves off from the public. Deanell Reece Tacha, a former appellate judge from the Tenth Circuit, said she believes judges should be active participants in their communities.
“I believe in the name of being impartial and not having conflicts of interest or violating the codes of ethics, to some extent, has withdrawn a bit from the community. And for me, the most important thing a judge must do is remain in constant contact with the community outside the courtroom,” she said. “It’s one of the things that keeps us rooted.”
Guzman said engaging with the public helps build the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary, which currently sits at an all-time low.
“We should listen to voices that are different from ours,” she said. “As a society I wish we engaged in conversations with people who don’t think like us.”