Lawsuit: Federal judge can't manage her personal affairs

AP News
|
Posted: Mar 30, 2017 2:44 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge in Louisiana who took medical leave after she was mysteriously pulled off a string of cases now faces a lawsuit from a fellow judge challenging her mental and physical capacity to manage her personal and financial affairs.

The case against U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi — one that legal experts said could be unprecedented for the federal judiciary — has been sealed from public view.

But attorney Thomas Lorenzi confirmed Thursday that he filed the March 16 suit on behalf of U.S. Magistrate Kathleen Kay, who has served under Minaldi at the federal courthouse in Lake Charles for the past decade. Lorenzi said Kay is acting in her personal capacity as a longtime friend of Minaldi.

Minaldi's attorney, Glen Vamvoras, said the judge is fighting the suit because she is "competent and able to manage her own affairs."

"They're trying to take her civil rights away from her. They're overstepping," Vamvoras told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday.

Minaldi has served as a judge in the Western District of Louisiana since her nomination in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush. She pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in February 2014 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.

It's unclear why the magistrate, and not a relative of Minaldi, initiated the case. Vamvoras said the judge and the magistrate "were very close friends at one time."

"Sometimes the best intentions don't always make it right. I'll leave it at that," he added.

The American Press, which first reported the suit's filing, asked a state judge on Wednesday to unseal the proceedings and make them public. State District Court Judge Ronald Ware scheduled an April 18 hearing for the newspaper's request.

University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor Arthur Hellman, an expert in judicial ethics, said he has never heard of another instance of one federal judge suing another.

"Judge Minaldi is her boss in the system," Hellman said. "The more I think about it, the more bizarre it is."

Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said Minaldi shouldn't return to the bench if the state court decides she must have a "curator" appointed to manage her affairs.

"If she can't make reasoned decisions about her own affairs, how can she make reasoned decisions about the litigants who appear before her?" Ciolino asked.

Tony Moore, clerk of court for the Western District of Louisiana, said in January that Minaldi had taken medical leave. Moore said on Wednesday that he couldn't comment on the lawsuit against Minaldi but said she remains on medical leave.

Dozens of cases originally assigned to Minaldi have been reassigned to other judges since late December.

On Dec. 6, a criminal trial in Minaldi's 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.

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, Chief Judge Dee Drell removed Minaldi from 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.