A 96-year-old federal judge is barred from hearing cases in a bitter fight over her mental fitness

Sep 20, 2023, 12:10 PM

A 96-year-old U.S. federal appeals court judge was barred Wednesday from hearing cases for a year after a panel said she refused to undergo medical testing amid concerns that she is no longer mentally fit to serve on the bench.

It’s the latest development in an unusually public and bitter fight over whether Judge Pauline Newman should continue to serve on the Washington-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that has sparked a lawsuit and turned judges against one another.

Newman, a President Ronald Reagan appointee who has been on the court for nearly four decades, insists that she remains physically and mentally fit to decide matters of the law, and has accused her colleagues of making baseless claims in an effort to push her out because of her age.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is one of 13 U.S. appellate courts. It hears cases on issues like government contracts, patents and trademarks. Federal judges chosen by presidents and confirmed by the U.S. Senate are appointed for life, and there’s no mandatory retirement age.

The Federal Circuit’s Judicial Council, which is made up of Newman’s colleagues, said the suspension was necessary because the longest-serving judge on the court won’t cooperate with an investigation into her mental fitness despite “reasonable concerns” that she “suffers from a disability preventing her from effectively discharging the duties of her office.”

The Judicial Council’s order said the suspension could be renewed after a year if she continues not to cooperate, or could be rescinded if she decides to comply. The decision suspended her from hearing new cases, though there are no old cases either because was already suspended since April amid the investigation, according to her attorney, Greg Dolin said.

Dolin said they will be seeking review from another committee that oversees the judicial conduct nationwide. He said they believe the sanction is “flatly illegal,” and that the process has been seriously flawed.

“The Judicial Council has been willing to grab onto as fact any allegation to support what appears to be a predetermined conclusion,” he said.

Newman filed a federal lawsuit in May against her fellow judges over the investigation, which Newman’s lawyers say was launched after she refused to resign despite demands from Chief Judge Kimberly Moore that she step down.

The Judicial Council said interviews with court staff point to “significant mental deterioration including memory loss, confusion, lack of comprehension, paranoia, anger, hostility, and severe agitation.” The order said the judge had also “amassed a troubling backlog of cases” and was lagging behind her colleagues in issuing opinions.

“Judge Newman has been having trouble recalling events, conversations, and information just days old and having trouble comprehending basic information that court staff communicate to her,” the council wrote.

Newman’s lawyers say the recommendation that she be suspended ignored evidence, “including a statement from a qualified neurologist that Judge Newman’s ‘cognitive function is sufficient to continue her participation in her court’s proceedings,'” as well as data showing there has been no decrease in her productivity.

“Were the committee formed to investigate these baseless allegations actually interested in ascertaining the truth of the matter— that Judge Newman, despite her age, is in no way disabled — it could have done so months ago,” her attorneys wrote in a response.

“Instead, Chief Judge Moore and the committee she appointed have been interested in one thing and one thing only — keeping Judge Newman off the bench via the exercise of raw power unconstrained by statutory requirements, constitutional limits, any notions of due process, conflict of interest rules, or even basic fairness,” they wrote.


Richer reported from Boston.

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A 96-year-old federal judge is barred from hearing cases in a bitter fight over her mental fitness