Federal judge, 96, is banned from cases for a year amid questions over mental fitness

A 96-year-old judge in Washington is fighting to prove she's mentally fit to carry out her job after she was barred from hearing cases for a year pending a cognitive assessment.

Judge Pauline Newman was appointed to the Washington-based US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit by Ronald Reagan almost 40 years ago.

The judge maintains that she is both physically and mentally fit to carry out her work and has accused her colleagues of trying to force her out, using her age as a cudgel, according to The Associated Press.

Federal judges chosen by presidents and confirmed by the US Senate are appointed for life, and there is no mandatory retirement age.

A council of her colleagues said that her suspension was needed, citing Ms Newman's reluctance to cooperate with an investigation into her mental acuity. They said there were "reasonable concerns" that she had been suffering "from a disability preventing her from effectively discharging the duties of her office."

Judge Pauline Newman, who is on the U.S. Court Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, poses in her office in Washington, on May 3, 2023 (AP)
Judge Pauline Newman, who is on the U.S. Court Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, poses in her office in Washington, on May 3, 2023 (AP)

The council cited interviews with court staff, who reportedly said Ms Newman showed signs of "significant mental deterioration including memory loss, confusion, lack of comprehension, paranoia, anger, hostility, and severe agitation."

They also said Ms Newman had a "troubling" backlog of cases and was not keeping up with her colleagues in administering 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 in its report.

If Ms Newman continues to reject the mental health assessment, the council will renew the ban after the year finishes.

The judge's attorney, Greg Dolin, said the sanction was "flatly illegal" and that he was seeking review from other committees that oversee judicial conduct.

“The judicial council has been willing to grab on to as fact any allegation to support what appears to be a predetermined conclusion,” he said.

Ms Newman sued her fellow judges in May over their insistence that she be investigated. The lawsuit came after the court's chief judge, Kimberly Moore, demanded that she resign.

Her attorneys are arguing that her suspension ignored evidence supporting her ability, including a statement from a neurologist who assessed the judge. The neurologist determined that Ms Newman's "cognitive function is sufficient to continue her participation in her court’s proceedings."

"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," her attorneys said.