Sep 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Judge, 96, suspended over refusal to comply with order on mental fitness tests

 Pauline Newman, a 95-year-old judge on the U.S. Court Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, with mementos in her office in Washington, DC.

Pauline Newman, a 96-year-old judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, with mementos in her office in Washington, D.C., in September. Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A 96-year-old federal appeals court judge was suspended from hearing cases on Wednesday after she refused to comply with an order to undergo neurological tests over concerns that she's not mentally fit to serve on the bench.

The big picture: The Judicial Council's unanimous order to suspend D.C. Judge Pauline Newman for one year comes as the issue of age and capacity to serve has come to the fore in all three branches of government in recent weeks, with calls for imposing age limits and giving older politicians mental competency tests.

Driving the news: The Judicial Council's order states that there's "overwhelming evidence" that Newman "may be experiencing significant mental problems including memory loss, lack of comprehension, confusion, and an inability to perform basic tasks that she previously was able to perform with ease" — allegations that her attorney called "baseless."

  • It follows an investigation that the council said included more than 20 interviews with court staff, whose affidavits reflected "consistent reports of deeply troubling interactions with Judge Newman that suggest significant mental deterioration including memory loss, confusion, lack of comprehension, paranoia, anger, hostility, and severe agitation."
  • The panel states that Newman's refusal to undergo two independent medical examinations, as requested in a committee's order in May, constituted "serious misconduct."

The other side: An attorney for Newman, who has served on the bench since being appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1984, said in response that her "suspension from judicial office 'pending the results of the investigation into potential disability/misconduct' was illegal and not authorized by any statute or rule of procedure."

What we're watching: The order states that Newman's suspension could be renewed if she does not comply with its requests or rescinded if she were to cooperate.

Meanwhile, her attorney, Greg Dolin, is seeking a review from another panel that oversees the judicial conduct nationwide.

Zoom in: The panel notes in the order that her colleagues are "acutely aware that this is not a fitting capstone" to Newman's "exemplary and storied career" and they "would prefer a different outcome for our friend and colleague," but it states that evidence indicated she "struggled with basic tasks, she became frustrated, agitated, belligerent, and hostile towards court staff."

  • However, Dolin cited examination results from experts that Newman chose to see that found "no substantial emotional, medical, or psychiatric disability that would interfere with continuation of her longstanding duties as a judge."

Of note: Newman has been suspended from panel assignments since April, according to Dolin.

  • She filed a federal lawsuit in May accusing Chief Judge Kimberly Moore of violating her right to due process over the investigation after Newman refused to resign.

Zoom out: The ages and health of 80-year-old President Biden and his 77-year-old 2024 election rival former President Trump have been raised as a concern by presidential election rivals and voters in some polls.

Go deeper: America's aging leaders on display

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