Washington — A 96-year-old judge on Wednesday was suspended from hearing cases for one year after she refused to undergo medical examinations and turn over medical records sought in response to concerns raised by her fellow judges and staff about her fitness to continue her work.
The order from the Judicial Council of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, located in Washington, D.C., is the latest marker in the ongoing dispute over Judge Pauline Newman’s ability to continue serving as an active judge, a role she has held for nearly 40 years.
Established in 1982, the Federal Circuit is one of 13 courts of appeals and hears disputes involving international trade, patents, trademarks, veterans’ benefits and money claims against the U.S. government. Newman was appointed to the Federal Circuit by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Concerns about “cognitive abilities”
Newman’s long tenure on the appeals court took a turn in March when Chief Judge Kimberly Moore entered an order that identified a judicial complaint against her. The filing referenced a heart attack Newman suffered in June 2021 and a fainting incident in May 2022, and noted that her workload had been reduced.
It also cited information from judges and court staff raising concerns that Newman was responsible for a backlog of cases and that she suffered from “impairment of cognitive abilities” that rendered her unable to function effectively.
Moore appointed a three-judge special committee to investigate the information about Newman’s ability to perform her duties and issue a recommendation for the Judicial Council. During the course of its investigation, the panel found that Newman threatened to have staff arrested, fired and forcibly removed from the building. The judge’s interactions were described as “bizarre and unnecessarily hostile,” “agitated, belligerent, and demonstratively angry,” and “ranting, rambling and paranoid.”
The committee’s probe resulted in a May order that directed Newman to undergo two medical examinations, one of which would be a full neuro-physical examination involving roughly six hours of cognitive testing. She was also told to provide medical records and sit for an interview with the panel.
But Newman objected to the requests and ultimately refused to comply. In response, the Judicial Council found that the judge committed misconduct by refusing.
In response to the one-year suspension, Newman’s lawyers noted she has been kept from hearing new cases since April while the investigation into her fitness to fulfill her duties was ongoing. They separately noted in a filing that the proceedings involving Newman have been marred by “personal animosity.” Newman’s lawyers have maintained that she suffers no cognitive deficits, and is capable and able to continue in her duties.
“Throughout this process, the Special Committee and the Judicial Council have engaged in what can fairly be described as ‘sharp practices,'” Greg Dolin, senior litigation counsel with the New Civil Liberties Alliance and Newman’s lawyer, said in a statement. “The Council faults Judge Newman and NCLA for attempting ‘to discredit this entire process by trying their case in the press.’ But it is not Judge Newman who brought discredit upon this process and the Federal Circuit. It is the lack of due process and the resort to unprecedented actions inconsistent with the governing statute and the Constitution.”
The Judicial Council’s findings
In its lengthy decision barring Newman from hearing cases, the Federal Circuit said the investigation from the special committee “uncovered overwhelming evidence of behavior by Judge Newman that provided a reasonable basis for concluding that she may suffer from a disability that renders her unable to discharge the duties of her office.”
Information collected during the probe showed evidence of memory loss, confusion and lack of comprehension, and staff reported that Newman at times was agitated and paranoid, such as claiming her email and computer were being hacked or her phones bugged.
The order also noted that Newman “baselessly and relentlessly accused various staff of stealing her computers, stealing her files, depriving her of secretarial services, and acting as counsel against her,” which led to the conclusion that the conduct toward staff was related to a disability.
Though Newman herself provided two medical reports showing she did not suffer from a disability, the Federal Circuit Judicial Council said they were not substitutes for the medical exams and records the investigating committee sought. It went on to accuse Newman of committing “serious misconduct” by refusing to comply with the May demand for medical testing, records and the interview.
“The evidence establishes reasonable concerns that Judge Newman suffers from a disability preventing her from effectively discharging the duties of her office,” the Judicial Council unanimously found.
The panel opened its 73-page order by praising Newman as a “highly valued and respected colleague,” and said her “many contributions to the court, to the patent system, and to the law are recognized by all.”
“Unfortunately, earlier this year mounting evidence raised increasing doubts about whether Judge Newman is still fit to perform the duties of her office,” the order stated, calling the resulting proceedings “very sad.”
In unanimously concluding that Newman engaged in misconduct by refusing to comply with the requests to turn over medical records, undergo testing and sit for an interview, the Judicial Council lamented that it is “acutely aware that this is not a fitting capstone to Judge Newman’s exemplary and storied career.”
“However, we have a solemn obligation under the Act and an obligation to the litigants before our Court and court staff to take action — and not to simply look the other way — when it appears that a judge of this Court is no longer capable of performing the duties of her judicial office,” the order stated. “Maintaining public confidence in the judiciary demands no less.”
Newman can have the one-year suspension lifted if she complies with the order allowing the committee to conclude its investigation into her fitness. It can also be renewed if the judge continues to defy the requests.
In a response to the committee’s findings, Newman’s lawyers said the panel has 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.”
Amid the examination of Newman’s ability to continue serving on the federal bench, the judge filed a lawsuit against Moore and two other judges on the Federal Circuit that accused them of taking unconstitutional actions against her.