BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge whose unusual behavior on the bench preceded her mysterious removal from a string of cases was ordered to get treatment for alcoholism so severe a colleague believes she cannot take care of herself, according to court records released Thursday.
The records revealing U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi’s alcoholism don’t answer whether it was a factor in the secretive interruptions in her Louisiana courtroom. But the documents show she moved into an assisted living facility specializing in “memory care” within three months of presiding over a criminal trial that was cut short without explanation.
The mandate for Minaldi to complete at least 90 days of substance abuse treatment came from a higher court official — the chief judge of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A newly released medical record cites the severity of Minaldi’s alcoholism and unspecified “legal consequences she had attained” as the reasons for that requirement.
It’s unclear when Chief Judge Carl Stewart imposed that mandate, but Minaldi, 58, has been on medical leave since late December. She arrived at a rehab facility Jan. 4, according to a “patient discharge summary” included in the now-unsealed records.
The newly released records are 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.
That lawsuit was filed under seal, meaning it was not public. But lawyers for the magistrate and Minaldi agreed to release a redacted version of the records after The Associated Press and the American Press newspaper in Lake Charles challenged the sealing.
Kay said in the documents that Minaldi was diagnosed with “alcohol use disorder” and “severe Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome,” a degenerative brain disorder linked to alcohol abuse. The March 16 suit also says Minaldi had been living since February at a Lake Charles assisted living facility. By March, her condition 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 filing says.
Minaldi’s attorney, Glen Vamvoras, has said the judge is “competent and able to manage her own affairs.” Minaldi gave power of attorney to Kay in 2007 and then revoked it two days after Kay sued, court records show.
Minaldi has served as a judge in the Lake Charles division of the Western District of Louisiana since her nomination in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush.
Court officials haven’t explained Minaldi’s removal from several cases last year, and the judge hasn’t responded to several requests for comment over the past few months.
The first hints of trouble came in February 2014, when 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.
Two years later, in February 2016, Minaldi was pulled off a man’s fraud case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures. Court documents released publicly 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 judge who inherited that case from Minaldi declared a mistrial at the request of a defense attorney and a prosecutor, who said he was told to assume Minaldi’s role of questioning and instructing jurors. The court didn’t explain Minaldi’s “inability” to continue handling the case.
The next month, the chief judge for the Western District of Louisiana 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 Lafayette, more than 70 miles (110 kilometers) away.
On Dec. 6, 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 docket entry indicates the man’s trial was adjourned less than an hour after it began.
Dozens of other cases originally assigned to Minaldi have been reassigned to other judges since late December. Minaldi is the only district court judge assigned to the Lake Charles division.
District court judges in the federal system are appointed for life terms. They can take senior status once they reach certain levels for their age and years of service, or retire by taking disability status. Only Congress can forcibly remove a district court judge, through an impeachment process, but federal circuit courts review complaints of judicial misconduct or disability and can reprimand or admonish judges.
Disciplinary actions against federal judges are rare, and there is no record of any such case involving Minaldi on the 5th Circuit’s website.
University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor Arthur Hellman, an expert in judicial ethics, said the federal courts typically attempt to quietly persuade judges to step down if they’re suffering from substance abuse problems or medical disabilities that could be affecting their duties.
“That is, most of the time, a very effective process,” Hellman said.