Oldest US judge's refusal to step down sparks legal battle over mental fitness

Witness reports say that she has been unable to complete simple tasks independently and even threatened a staffer with arrest

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Oldest US judge Pauline Newmans refusal to step down sparks legal battle over mental fitness. Twitter/Afropages
Oldest US judge Pauline Newman's refusal to step down sparks legal battle over mental fitness. Twitter/Afropages

A US federal appeals judge, Judge Pauline Newman, 95, is facing a competency investigation. 

Witness reports included in an order from her court on Tuesday revealed that she has been unable to complete simple tasks independently and even threatened a staffer with arrest. 

Despite her request to transfer the probe to another circuit, the US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals rejected it and instead ordered her to undergo a neurological evaluation and neuropsychological testing. Judge Newman has sued in district court to halt or transfer the investigation, claiming constitutional violations. 

Her lawyer, John Vecchione, did not comment on the new allegations but criticised the committee's decision and raised concerns about impartiality. 

According to interviews with court staff cited in the order, Judge Newman has frequently claimed without evidence that her devices are being hacked or bugged. In another incident mentioned in the document, she asserted that she did not have to comply with a court rule based on the instruction of a judge who died many years ago. Furthermore, she threatened to have one of her court staffers arrested. 

Concerns about her mental state were raised by one staffer who stated, "Though it is difficult to say this, I believe Judge Newman is simply losing it mentally."

The Federal Circuit disclosed the probe last month due to concerns about Judge Newman's ability to handle cases and her refusal to cooperate with the investigation. As a lifetime-appointed federal judge, she can only leave her position through retirement, resignation, impeachment, or death. Judge Newman, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, is the oldest sitting federal judge in the United States and specializes in patent law cases.

Amidst the ongoing legal fight surrounding her refusal to step down, Judge Newman filed a suit challenging the complaint by a panel of fellow justices claiming her mental or physical disability prevents her from discharging her duties. She maintains that she is fully capable of handling cases and accuses the judicial panel of violating the US Constitution. However, a three-judge judicial committee dismissed her objections and cited several examples of her alleged diminished capacities. 

Concerns about her memory loss, confusion, agitation, and lack of focus were raised by multiple court staff members who interact with her.

In response, the panel ordered Judge Newman to meet with a neurologist for assessment and submit to a full battery of neuropsychological testing. She has until May 23 to inform the committee whether she will comply or face disciplinary action. 

The panel emphasised the importance of instilling confidence in the litigants whose rights are at stake, ensuring that judges ruling on their cases are not affected by cognitive impairment.