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Federal judge, 96, barred from hearing cases after panel claims lack of mental fitness: ‘Baseless allegations’

Judge Pauline Newman, the oldest sitting federal judge in America, was barred Wednesday from hearing cases after a panel of her colleagues determined she is not mentally fit enough to serve on the bench, a claim Newman’s team has called “baseless.”

The year-long suspension imposed on Newman by the Federal Circuit’s Judicial Council comes after the panel said she won’t cooperate with an investigation into “reasonable concerns” surrounding her mental fitness.

Newman, 96, was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit by former President Ronald Reagan in 1985. She says she is physically and mentally fit enough to continue doing her job, and has obtained independent evaluations from two doctors issuing the same opinion, court documents revealed.

The investigation into Newman led her to file a federal lawsuit against her fellow judges in May.


Judge Pauline Newman, 96, was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit by former President Ronald Reagan in 1985. She is the oldest sitting federal judge in America. (LinkedIn/Getty)

In a response to the decision, Newman’s lawyers said the issue escalated in March after Newman refused to resign despite “non-negotiable” demands from Chief Judge Kimberly Moore that she step down or take senior status. The document stated that Moore asked Newman to step down because she had “probable cause to believe” that Newman suffers from a cognitive disability.

In its decision, the Judicial Council said more than 20 interviews with court staff point to “significant mental deterioration including memory loss, confusion, lack of comprehension, paranoia, anger, hostility, and severe agitation.” The order also said Newman was slower than her colleagues in issuing opinions and had “amassed a troubling backlog of cases,” which her team has said is not accurate.

“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 described the claims as “baseless” and an effort to force her out of her position because of her age. Federal judges, who are chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate, are appointed for life and do not have to retire at any given age.


Judge Pauline Newman

Newman, 96, has been barred from hearing cases for at least a year after a judicial panel said she refused to undergo medical testing amid concerns about her mental fitness, despite producing two independent medical evaluations stating she is fit to serve. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via AP)

Newman’s suspension can be renewed or rescinded depending on her level of cooperation with the investigation, according to the order. 

The decision revealed that Newman’s refusal to cooperate stems from a May 16 order from a Special Committee directing her to undergo two medical examinations and to provide one of the examiners “specified medical records of relevance to assessing disability.” She was also asked to sit with the Committee for an interview.

“The burden is small, the basis for concern about disability very substantial, and the job at issue of great public importance. Yet Judge Newman refused,” the panel wrote.

Judge Pauline Newman talking

Judge Pauline Newman’s attorneys said the yearlong sanction imposed on her is “flatly illegal” and they will be looking to another committee overseeing judicial conduct to review the case. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via AP)

Newman’s lawyers said she did not fulfill the requests because the Committee had selected the medical providers without disclosing “their qualifications or the methods of their selection.”

Newman did obtain independent medical evaluations from a neurologist and a forensic psychiatrist, both of whom determined she is in an acceptable mental state to continue serving on the bench.

“In light of the considered opinions of now two independent expert practitioners, both of whom have found that Judge Newman is fully competent and entirely capable of continuing in office, the Committee, even if it ever had a legitimate basis to question Judge Newman’s competence, has no further basis for requiring additional testing or continuing to question Judge Newman’s abilities,” her lawyers wrote.

Greg Dolin, one of Newman’s attorneys, said they believe the sanction imposed on Newman is “flatly illegal” and they will be seeking review from another committee overseeing judicial conduct nationwide.

Plaque outside U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Newman has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit for 39 years. Federal judges are appointed to the bench for life and are not required to retire at a specific age. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)


In their response, Newman’s attorneys determined the Committee is not interested in “the truth of the matter,” but set on meeting a “predetermined conclusion.”

“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,” they wrote.

“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.”

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