Judge took leave to treat alcoholism months after complaint

AP News
Posted: Sep 11, 2017 4:50 PM
Judge took leave to treat alcoholism months after complaint

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A now-retired federal judge took medical leave for treatment of severe alcoholism more than seven months after court officials in Louisiana received a complaint questioning her ability to serve on the bench, a court filing shows.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals appointed a committee to investigate the April 2016 complaint about U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi's "possible disability," according to an order dated Aug. 23 and signed by the New Orleans-based court's chief judge.

The court hadn't disclosed the complaint or committee's investigation prior to issuing the order.

An Associated Press investigation showed Minaldi's pattern of unusual behavior on the bench preceding her removal from a string of cases, starting in February 2016. Minaldi continued handling cases until she took medical leave in December.

After she officially left the job in July, taking disability retirement, the committee recommended ending the investigation, according to the two-page order from the 5th Circuit's Judicial Council, which assembled the committee. The council said "intervening events have made the proceeding unnecessary."

Details of the April 2016 complaint and the investigation weren't disclosed in the order. Vikram Chandhok, chief circuit mediator for the 5th Circuit, said Monday that the order was the only publicly available record related to the committee's investigation.

One of Minaldi's attorneys, Glen Vamvoras, didn't immediately return a call from the AP seeking comment Monday.

The 5th Circuit's Judicial Council — a panel of federal district court and appellate court judges — said in its order that it reviewed "compelling and uncontroverted medical evidence" of Minaldi's permanent disability.

The court-appointed committee met with Minaldi and retained medical experts to evaluate her before it closed its investigation, which also included interviews with unspecified witnesses, according to the order.

Court records unsealed in April revealed that Minaldi, 58, was required to get treatment for alcoholism so severe that a colleague asked a court to rule she couldn't take care of herself. 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.

But court officials haven't explained a string of secretive interruptions in Minaldi's courtroom last year in Lake Charles.

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 — such as 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. The order came four days after Minaldi abruptly adjourned a hearing to accept guilty pleas by two sheriff's deputies. The 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.

In 2014, Minaldi pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge and was sentenced to one year of probation.