Judicial Conference addresses substance abuse and mental health problems within the legal profession

Oct. 23, 2002

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman on Wednesday asked state judges to seek help for lawyers or judges whom they suspect have alcohol or drug problems.

"You need to be alert to what you can do to help your fellow man," Pittman told about 50 judges at the Trial and Appellate Judges' Fall Conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jackson.

Pittman asked judges to contact the Mississippi Bar's Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program. The confidential program helps legal professionals who have addiction and mental health problems.

"You literally might save the life of a friend or colleague," Pittman said.

Judges have powerful leverage to prod lawyers into getting treatment, according to Betty Daugherty, director of the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program, and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder. Both spoke at the conference.

Daugherty said several judges have arranged for a representative of the assistance program to be present and have called lawyers to their chambers to talk about their problems.

Holder, who started Tennessee's program when she was in private practice 16 years ago, said judicial involvement is a heavy-handed approach.

"Is it coercive? Yeah. Which is more important - your feeling that your participation might have a coercive effect because you are a judge, or saving somebody's life?" Holder said.

Holder started a substance abuse and mental health assistance program in Tennessee after one of her law partners, who had mental health problems, committed suicide.

Daugherty said depression constitutes 30 percent of her case load and is the largest category of referrals to the program during the past year.

Daugherty said lawyers who struggle with mental health or addiction problems are not giving their clients the best representation. "The illnesses of addiction and depressive disorders affect the lawyer's ability to have good judgment," Daugherty said.

Lloyd Gordon M.D. of Brandon, medical director of COPAC, a residential chemical dependency treatment center in Rankin County, explained that some people have a genetic predisposition to addiction. They can quit, but they need to get help.

"If you are addicted, you are considered impaired," Gordon told the conference.

Retired Chancery Court Judge Donald B. Patterson of Brookhaven, who was in the audience Wednesday, said his own bout with depression in 1995 lasted about eight months. He called it "the visit with the black dog." He got help and recovered.

"I'm over it," Patterson said. "I'm Exhibit A."

More information on the Lawyer and Judges Assistance Program is available on the Mississippi Bar's web site, www.msbar.org.

Thursday's conference program includes a discussion of drug courts starting at 2:45 p.m. in the Windsor I room at the Crowne Plaza. Panelists are Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb, who started Mississippi's first drug court; Missouri Circuit Court Judge David Dolan; and Cary Heck, administrator of the Drug Court program of the Louisiana Supreme Court.

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MEDIA CONTACT:   Beverly Pettigrew Kraft
Administrative Office of Courts
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