an ally to freeing people from wrongful convictions eaten by early onset Alzheimer's
Judges with cognitive issues often escape oversight and cost people their freedom - your Friday long read from ProPublica
A sneaking illness costs a man years of his life while she handled his case
For ShawnDya Simpson, 54, the decision to retire was not entirely voluntary. She had been found to be suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Acting on complaints of erratic behavior, delays in issuing decisions and the failure to reliably show up in her courtroom, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct had worked to negotiate an end to Simpson’s career once her medical condition had been officially determined.
Robert Tembeckjian, the commission’s head, issued a statement along with the public release of Simpson’s retirement notice.
“This is as sad a situation as I have encountered in over 40 years of judicial ethics enforcement,” Tembeckjian said.
As a prosecutor, Simpson had a reputation for reassuring younger colleagues that they could dismiss any case in which they didn’t trust their witnesses or the detectives working the investigations. The accused, she told them, were not just faceless actors in the busy machinery of a big city courthouse.
“I’m going home,” Cruz remembered thinking when Simpson granted him a hearing.
Yet over the next two years, Cruz and his lawyers became baffled by Simpson’s handling of his case. Simpson rendered decisions only to agree to reconsider them; the lawyers said she sometimes admitted she hadn’t adequately read the case filings. Later, Simpson was quietly reassigned from Brooklyn to the Bronx by court administrators. Cruz’s lawyers said they had to track her down physically in the Bronx just to see where things stood.
Ultimately, Simpson made Cruz wait nine months before she conducted the evidentiary hearing she had promised, and when it was held in 2019, Cruz’s lawyers assert that she could seem uncertain of herself about prior testimony and legal procedure.
Finally, in August 2019, Simpson had Cruz before her. She’d made her decision. She read a brief statement denying Cruz’s motion before, without explanation or warning, she simply walked off the bench. Cruz’s family members had been so confident of a good outcome they had bought him a new outfit, a slick sweatsuit and Yankees cap, to wear after being freed. At Simpson’s ruling, his wife and stepdaughter sobbed audibly.
Francis Shen, executive director of Harvard’s Center for Law, Brain and Behavior, said the issue of cognitive decline among judges is both considerable and complicated. To take the bench, federal judges are required to undergo a medical exam that includes mental health measures. Once appointed, though, they are never required to receive what Shen calls a “brain health” exam.
“We just have no good system for assessing a judge’s cognitive health,” said Shen, who recently produced a 90-page study titled “Aging Judges.”
Shen said the average age of federal judges today is 69, with a number of judges over 90 still presiding in courtrooms. State judges tend to be younger, he said, and some states, including New York, have used mandatory retirement ages to try to address issues related to aging jurists.
Yet there are no formal mechanisms for those worried about a judge’s mental health — fellow judges, clerks, litigants — to raise alarms or intervene.
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