The most senior federal judge in the United States has been temporarily barred from receiving new cases. A federal appeals court has reached a unanimous decision that, pending her cooperation with an inquiry into her capability, she should not be assigned any further duties. This situation presents a unique scenario and draws parallels to the ongoing debate surrounding elderly public officials who are reluctant to relinquish their positions.
Judge Pauline Newman was designated to the District Court of Washington, DC by President Reagan back in 1984, a time when she was well into her late 50s. Nearly four decades have passed, spanning six different presidential administrations, and she remains in her judicial role. However, there is a notable shift in perception among her peers, who now harbor doubts about her continued capability to fulfill her duties.
In March, an examination conducted by a court committee revealed a significant decline in her caseload, leading to the reassignment of numerous cases due to substantial delays, including one that had been pending for a staggering 624 days. Additionally, there were indications of cognitive impairment on her part.
Consequently, following this assessment, the court ceased assigning her new cases. In April, her court initiated an inquiry, alleging that Newman was not fulfilling her responsibilities and was unresponsive to concerns raised by fellow judges.
Newman declined to participate in the inquiry or undergo medical evaluations to assess her suitability for her judicial role. As a result, the matter continued to intensify, leading the court to initiate a misconduct investigation regarding her non-cooperation. She also declined the option of assuming senior status, which would have provided a graceful path to retirement without the need for formal resignation.
In an August report, she was accused of engaging in severe misconduct, with new allegations of mental impairments such as paranoia and episodes of irate outbursts. Simultaneously, Newman, arguing that her colleagues were not the appropriate judges of her case, took legal action against them.
The Washington, DC Circuit Court of Appeals has issued its judgment on the matter. On September 20, it imposed a one-year suspension on Newman’s ability to handle new cases, or until she consented to undergo a medical evaluation. In announcing their unanimous decision, the court acknowledged, “This is not a fitting capstone to Judge Newman’s exemplary and storied career”. However, they emphasized that they had no alternative but to take this action.