T o those who knew him and watched him on the bench, Niagara Falls City Court Judge Robert Restaino appeared to be the picture of a perfect justice.

Bright and driven, friends found him to be a family man with a particular concern for issues that affected families and

children.

Honored for his work in City Court, colleagues marveled at the smooth and efficient way in which he would handle as many as 100 to 120 criminal cases in a single day.

Some called City Court a “zoo” with what appeared to be a crushing caseload.

For Restaino, who disposed of approximately 90,000 cases from the time he arrived on the court as a part-time judge in 1996 until October, it was just another day at the office.

Restaino even served as an acting judge in Buffalo City Court to help relieve a backlog of cases there.

Then, on March 11, 2005, something happened that surprised everyone except a small group of doctors who know what can happen when you reach the top the legal ladder.

“Certain types of people (high achievers) go into certain types of professions (law),” says Dr. Frederick Cooley, a psychologist with experience in treating what it is known as judicial stress. “Once you’re in (the profession), you find there is huge stress.”

Cooley says as lawyers take on more and more responsibility in their cases, stress can rise rapidly.

“You might not experience it much staying in an office and doing things like wills and real estate,” he said. “But if you’re a corporate lawyer and negotiating multi-million dollar mergers, or a (criminal) defense attorney where a person’s life or freedom depend on you and the decisions you make, there is enormous pressure It’s high and gets higher as you go up the ladder from lawyer to judge.”

Then take that stress, mix it in with a disorder like depression and you have a recipe for serious trouble. It’s a condition called vicarious trauma.

“It’s sort of our profession’s dark secret,” said prominent local defense attorney Terrence Connors. “And light needs to be shone on it.”

Connors says it was vicarious trauma that caused Restaino to commit what the state Commission on Judicial Conduct has called “an egregious and unprecedented abuse of judicial power.”

On that March day, as he presided over the Domestic Violence Court, Restaino put 46 defendants behind bars for at least a few hours, and some longer, when no one would take responsibility for a ringing cell phone in his courtroom.

For Connors and some others who have looked closely at this case, it is an example of what can go wrong when you ratchet up stress, add a dose of depression and don’t try to get help. Restaino’s lawyers have cited stress and depression as the cause for the judge’s outburst.

“The specialty court justices are at greater risk (then even most judges and lawyers) because of the crushing caseload,” Connors said, “and you’ve got people’s lives splayed out in front of you every day. That’s a tough order.”

Research done at Johns Hopkins University in 1990 first identified the depths of depression in the legal profession.

In a study of 104 diverse professions, with adjustments made for socioeconomic factors, those in the legal community suffered the highest rate of depression. The study also concluded that lawyers suffer from clinical depression at a rate that is almost four times higher than the rest of the general population.

“Lawyers have a lot of problems,” said attorney Daniel Lukasik. “They are ordinary people, like everyone else.”

Lukasik, a Newfane native, has created the Web site Lawyers With Depression. The site serves as a clearing house for information on how the disorder can affect the legal community.

“If you look at the statistics, out of a million lawyers in America, 250,000 of them have some level of depression,” Lukasik said. “That’s huge. That’s why I created the Web site and a support group.”

When Lukasik talks about depression in the legal profession, he speaks from a very personal perspective. He has the disorder himself.

“I have suffered from clinical depression,” he said. “And I went looking for information, a Web site, and couldn’t find one. So, I created (Lawyers With Depression) as a clearinghouse for information.”

Lukasik says people should not be surprised or shocked that depression is such a problem in his profession. He says lawyers can be very lonely people.

“Lawyers, in general, feel isolated and lonely,” Lukasik said. “They feel they are the only ones who understand what they deal with. They think people who aren’t lawyers can’t understand them. You combine that isolation, add depression and stress and it’s almost like the perfect storm.”

Cooley says there was a time when lawyers might try to deal with stress through the use of alcohol or drugs. However the higher up in the profession you are, the harder it is to abuse those substances.

“In any field, stress will come out in its own peculiar way,” Cooley said. “We handle it in our own ways. A therapist will go to another therapist because that’s how we’ve been trained. But therapy scares a lot of people, which may or may not apply to people like judges.”

If lawyers and judges don’t turn to drugs or alcohol and won’t try therapy, what happens, the experts say, is the Restaino case. They “erupt” in ways no one can predict.

Restaino has told confidants that what he did in the courtroom in 2005 he could not have imagined doing in “his wildest dreams.” He admitted in testimony to the Judicial Conduct Commission that he dealt with stress and depression by plunging further into his work.

“I would bury myself into work,” Restaino said. “I would try to work harder to occupy my mind, occupy my time and give me an avenue other than thinking about those things that are troubling me.”

However, in the aftermath of the cell phone incident, Restaino realized he needed to reach out for help. The next business day after the incident, Restaino placed a call to the bar association’s Lawyer Assistance Program.

Lukasik says that call and a greater public awareness of the stress and depression problems facing people in the legal community are a positive result from what has happened.

“I greatly sympathize with (Restaino),” he said. “What he’s going through, it might seem like no good can come from it, but being so public (about his problems) that’s a very courageous thing to do.”

Cooley echoed Lukasik’s views, saying “anytime we uncover something that is harming people, it’s good.”

Connors will argue, probably in April, that Restaino’s stress and vicarious trauma combined to create the cell phone incident. He’ll also argue that the judge’s recognition of his problem and determination to treat it should be a reason to reverse a Judicial Conduct Commission recommendation to remove him from the bench.

“This man’s whole life has been helping other people, sometimes to his own detriment,” Connors said. “And it’s healthy (now) to seek help. It’s not a weakness or a flaw.”

Contact reporter Rick Pfeiffer

at 282-2311, ext. 2252.

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