APNewsBreak: Judge retires after leave for alcoholism care
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge in Louisiana has retired several months after taking medical leave for treatment of severe alcoholism, a condition that came to light only after a series of mysterious interruptions in her courtroom.
U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi’s disability retirement took effect on Monday, said Tony Moore, clerk of court for the Western District of Louisiana.
Court records unsealed in April revealed Minaldi, 58, was required to get treatment for alcoholism so severe that a colleague asked a court to rule she cannot take care of herself.
An Associated Press investigation showed Minaldi’s pattern of unusual behavior on the bench preceding her removal from a string of cases last year.
In February 2016, Minaldi was pulled off a man’s fraud case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures. Court documents released at the AP’s request showed that even basic requirements — like telling jurors the burden of proof lies with prosecutors, not the defense — weren’t followed.
The next month, the district’s chief judge removed Minaldi from criminal cases against a sheriff and several subordinates. No explanation was given, though the order came four days after Minaldi abruptly adjourned a hearing to accept guilty pleas by two sheriff’s deputies. The two deputies wound up pleading guilty later that same day before another judge.
In December, a criminal trial in Minaldi’s courtroom was cut short without explanation before a jury could be picked to hear a child pornography case. A transcript unsealed last month at the AP’s request shows the proceedings ended with a defense attorney asking to speak with Minaldi privately in her chambers.
Court officials haven’t explained those secretive interruptions in her courtroom. Scores of other cases originally assigned to Minaldi already have been transferred to other judges, also without a detailed explanation.
In 2014, Minaldi pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge and was sentenced to one year of probation. Dashcam video obtained by local news organizations showed her arguing with an officer and refusing to get out of her car before police arrested her outside her Lake Charles home.
“This seems to be one of the rare instances where intervention did not come quickly enough,” said University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor Arthur Hellman, an expert in judicial ethics.′
Minaldi has said proceedings in her courtroom were halted “if there ever was an indication” that she was unable to handle her duties due to alcohol.
“There have been thousands and thousands of cases that I have handled where that was never even an issue,” Minaldi said during an interview with Lake Charles media outlets in April.
Minaldi had been on medical leave since late December. The mandate for Minaldi to complete at least 90 days of substance abuse treatment came from the chief judge of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s unclear when Chief Judge Carl Stewart imposed that mandate, but Minaldi arrived at a rehab facility on Jan. 4.
The court records unsealed in April were part of a lawsuit filed by a longtime friend and colleague, U.S. Magistrate Kathleen Kay. The lawsuit challenged Minaldi’s physical and mental capacity to manage her personal and financial affairs.
A court order last Tuesday said Minaldi and the magistrate had “reached an accord” and wanted the case to be dismissed, with Minaldi bearing the unspecified costs of the proceedings.
Minaldi gave power of attorney to Kay in 2007 and then revoked it two days after Kay sued in March.
In the lawsuit, Kay said Minaldi was diagnosed with severe Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a degenerative brain disorder linked to alcohol abuse. The suit said Minaldi’s condition in March was so severe that she was “unable to take care of her daily activities” and “unable to safely take care of her personal needs, financial matters, or her property matters.”
The records showed Minaldi moved into an assisted living facility specializing in “memory care” within three months of presiding over the trial that was cut short without explanation in December.
Minaldi began serving as a judge in the district’s Lake Charles division after her nomination in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush.
Her retirement leaves the Lake Charles division without a district judge. Moore said the Western District of Louisiana, currently served by three active district judges, has three other judicial vacancies.
Federal judges who take disability retirement after at least 10 years of continuous service are entitled to continue receiving a salary for the rest of their lives.