A 96-year-old federal appeals court judge suspended from her duties after refusing to undergo neurological exams over concerns about her mental fitness is coinciding with a tense debate in Washington over age and term limits.
Pauline Newman, 96, was barred from hearing cases on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., for one year unless she complies with her colleagues’ demands to submit to medical testing. The threats to her life tenure on the bench come as the health of 80-year-old President Joe Biden and his 77-year-old political adversary former President Donald Trump have been cited as concerns by some candidates and polling data.
“We are acutely aware that this is not a fitting capstone to Judge Newman’s exemplary and storied career,” according to the order by the Judicial Council.
The suspension follows an investigation that included more than 20 interviews with court staff whose affidavits alleged “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.”
Because Newman refused to undergo two independent medical examinations requested by a “special committee” recommendation, that amounted to “serious misconduct.”
An attorney for Newman, who has served on the bench since being appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1984, issued a 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What’s more, the order states Newman’s suspension could be renewed if she doesn’t comply with its requests or rescinded if she were to cooperate.
According to a 2022 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, disability is infrequently stated as the basis of complaints filed under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, which is the law authorizing the complaint against Newman.
Russell Wheeler, a governance studies expert at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Examiner the rarity of such disability complaints is likely due to issues being “taken care of informally.”
“That’s what the judges tried to do here — Try to coax her to take senior status,” Wheeler said.
Last month, 5th Circuit Judge Edith Jones criticized the investigation into Newman’s mental fitness as “inexplicable,” adding she is a “brilliant, capable jurist.”
Her suspension comes at a time when some lawmakers in Congress have been questioned as to whether they are fit to maintain their office, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) after she was absent for weeks from Congress and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) following two televised freeze-ups during press conferences this year.
Last November, a Reuters/Ipsos poll suggested that most U.S. residents are in favor of upper-age limits for presidents, lawmakers, and Supreme Court justices.
Some Republican presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail, such as former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, 51, have talked about competency tests for older politicians. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), 45, said earlier this month that Biden’s and Trump’s ages are a “legitimate concern” for voters in the 2024 election.
Newman’s attorney, Greg Dolin, argues the council was “ignoring data or information or opinions that are inconsistent with its predetermined goals and outcomes” and that the judge would challenge the order in court.
“For her part, Judge Newman will not stop her fight for due process of law and respect for constitutional norms,” Dolin said.