Federal judge who surrendered cases takes medical leave

AP News
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Posted: Jan 26, 2017 6:00 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge in Louisiana who has been mysteriously pulled off or surrendered a string of cases over the past year is now taking medical leave, an official said Thursday.

Tony Moore, clerk of court for the Western District of Louisiana, confirmed that U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi has taken medical leave and asked the chief judge to reassign cases assigned to her.

It's unclear when Minaldi began her leave or how long it could last; Moore said he couldn't provide any additional information.

The news shed some light on unusual happenings in her courtroom.

More than two dozen cases originally assigned to Minaldi have been reassigned to another judge since late December. Minaldi hasn't responded to several requests for comment over the past few months, including one Thursday.

An Associated Press review of court records discovered that at least 27 of Minaldi's cases were given to another judge. The one-page orders did not explain why Minaldi asked for those civil and criminal cases to be reassigned.

Judges occasionally recuse themselves from cases but typically cite a reason, such as avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest. But it's unusual for a judge to surrender a batch of unrelated cases without explanation.

On Dec. 6, a criminal trial in Minaldi's Lake Charles courtroom was cut short without explanation before a jury could be picked to hear the case against a man charged with producing child pornography and crossing state lines to have sex with a minor. A docket entry indicates the man's trial was adjourned less than an hour after it began.

Minaldi has issued orders in other cases since the Dec. 6 trial. On Dec. 19, for instance, she refused to disqualify herself from an inmate's civil lawsuit against a police task force.

The inmate claimed Minaldi couldn't be impartial because she had been arrested in Lake Charles and later pleaded guilty in February 2014 to a drunken driving charge. Minaldi said the inmate's arguments have no merit.

But other routine assignments for Minaldi also have ended without any reasons publicly disclosed.

In February 2016, Minaldi was pulled off a man's fraud case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures. Court documents unsealed 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.

In March 2016, Judge Drell removed Minaldi from the Justice Department's high-profile criminal cases against a south Louisiana 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 away.

On Thursday, an attorney for a man suing his former employer for unpaid wages cited the "concerning news" about Minaldi's medical leave in asking for the federal lawsuit to be taken from her and transferred to another judge.

Michael Ashford's lawyer, Somer Brown, noted his case against Aeroframe Services LLC and Aviation Technical Services Inc. has been pending since mid-2014 with only two rulings by Minaldi in the litigation.

Brown said there's a "dire need for an able-bodied and effective federal judge" to preside over it and more than a dozen related cases currently assigned to Minaldi.

"The bizarre and lengthy history of this case is perplexing," Brown wrote.

The lawyer also suggested that Minaldi's unidentified medical condition may be at least partially to blame for delays in the case.

"For months, Mr. Ashford has continued to seek a conclusion to this litigation and has been frustrated by the court's failure to rule on pending motions or set matters for trial," Brown wrote.