Short Take: The Discretion of the Court

The death of New York Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was tragic and shocking. But that her death is being attributed to suicide makes it also bewildering.

In the hours after her body was found, the police said they were treating her death as a suicide. The judge, 65, had recently told friends and a doctor that she was suffering from stress. And tragedy had followed her closely: On Easter in 2012, her mother committed suicide at age 92, according to two law enforcement officials. Two years later, around the same holiday, her brother shot himself to death, the officials said.

There would appear to be a thread of mental illness in her family, though no one has come out and said this, and I’m certainly not qualified to offer a meaningful opinion. Her doctor spoke of the stress she was under, the demands of her job as a judge on the state’s highest court, for speeches, for life with her new husband of eight months, her third new husband.

Still, no one saw this coming.

[M]any of Judge Abdus-Salaam’s friends and colleagues said they could not believe that she had killed herself, and investigators have not produced a suicide note.

It has raised awareness of the issues surrounding mental illness, in general, and depression, in particular. I have friends who suffer from these problems, and can’t help but be very sympathetic to them. Which makes it extremely hard to raise the other side of the discussion, as it conflicts with the desire to destigmatize mental illness so that people in need of help seek it without fear that their dirty secret will ruin their career, their life.

But Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wasn’t just a person in need of help. She was a Court of Appeals judge. If she suffered from a disability that impaired her ability to perform that function, it isn’t just a personal matter. If her ability to think, reason, feel was influenced by mental illness, and it impacted the life of litigants who relied on her exercise of discretion, does it make her personal mental health a public matter?

It’s politically incorrect to raise this question. And it’s personally difficult, as it’s not meant to demean anyone who suffers from mental illness. At the same time, there is a concern for those whose lives are altered, perhaps forever, by her decisions. It’s not unreasonable to expect decisions to be made with a clear head and a sound mind.

I have no answer for this dilemma, and condemn no one. But to ignore this question is to elevate the concern for those who suffer their personal issues over the concern for those whose lives can be destroyed by them. Can they all be accommodated? I don’t know.

23 thoughts on “Short Take: The Discretion of the Court

  1. Bruce Coulson

    Organizations/Bureaucracies (public and private) expect people to be ‘professional’; to carry on and perform their tasks correctly despite any personal hardships they may be suffering. Even with studies showing that people’s work suffer, bureaucracies are unwilling to make adjustments, and even punish employees who show signs of stress (increasing the stress the person is under). OTOH, finding suitable replacements for a position may be hard, or even impossible, and the job needs to be done. (Abraham Lincoln, responding to a request for a new appointee; “Anybody will do for you, but not for me. I must have somebody.”) This may be a question without any good answers.

    1. SHG Post author

      Do you do this because anyone who needs to know will be more inclined to look to my comments rather than, say, google? Kinda virtue signalling here.

  2. Keith Lee

    Pardon the link, but:

    “Federal judge Patricia Minaldi ordered to rehab for alcoholism, records show” The judge has been presiding over cases for years, despite giving Power of Attorney to a Magistrate Judge back in 2007 for a short period.

    And this wasn’t mild alcoholism (if such a thing exists). But, “alcohol use disorder” and “severe Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome,” a degenerative brain disorder linked to alcohol abuse. By any account that would impair one’s abilities. Yet she’s been presiding over court? That seems ludicrous to me.

    Yes, one’s mental health is largely a personal affair. But if you’re going to be a judge, I think it becomes a matter of public concern as well.

    I don’t know how it needs to be addressed, but it’s a frank conversation judges/lawyers/the court system need to have.

    1. SHG Post author

      Exactly. On the one hand, no one wants to shame a person for suffering an illness. On the other, no one wants to go to prison for life because their judge is suffering an illness. And how can we tell one way or the other?

    2. Lex

      “I don’t know how it needs to be addressed, but it’s a frank conversation judges/lawyers/the court system need to have.”

      I’m slightly more curious about the conversations Judge Minaldi’s clerks were having. Even if they’re both termites with civil duties only, there’s only so much you can lean on them before it gets weird.

      1. SHG Post author

        This is a perpetual problem in chambers (and not just among a judge’s clerks, but staff and other judges). At what point does someone go to the chief judge and whisper, “you know, Judge X has lost it and is a danger.” While a full-blown breakdown can be pretty clear, the slow or the occasional loss of mental acuity is hard to see and, even if seen, a huge step. The empathy toward the judge, or the benefit of the doubt, can come at the expense of the litigant. We may feel badly for the judge, but what about the litigant? At what point does a clerk, or another judge, decide that the hammer must be dropped?

        1. B. McLeod

          In the 1980s, we had an interesting character on the bench in a western district of the state, chief judge of a six county district. I have been told by a colleague out there that on one Friday docket day, every lawyer in the district came to visit the judge in chambers, bringing with them a resignation, and a pledge that if he did not sign it, they would drive in caravan to the capitol to pursue his removal.

        2. Lex

          I know of a handful of judges who, suffering some debility, told their clerks to watch for and mention any decline to the judge or report to the Chief Judge (as clerks are privy to the judge’s thinking in a way that no one else is, even his family, and because they are supposed to talk back precisely because everyone else will not. It would be interesting to know what Judge Kopf told (still tells?) his.

          Re Minaldi, I’m curious if, and for how long, hers were playing “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Ghostwriting orders is one thing. Were they, e.g., also prepping her sentencing scripts?

          1. SHG Post author

            I’m told by judge friends that they have someone, maybe a clerk, maybe a lawyer friend, to let them know when they’ve lost it. They know it can happen and need someone to tell them the awful truth. Some have even asked me to do so. Clerks may be the best source, seeing and working with the judge daily, but they aren’t really in the best position to pull the plug and it runs contrary to their self-interest.

  3. B. McLeod

    I have had a few colleagues beset by anxiety and depression. It seems to mostly impact their ability to stay on calendar and to take up unpleasant tasks. I haven’t noticed it affecting the quality of things they actually get done. On the other hand, I didn’t find out about one of them until he missed doing some fairly critical paperwork when it needed to be done, and his diagnosis came out in the published disciplinary case (shocked the Hell out of me, because he was not a person I would have ever guessed to be suffering from depression).

    1. SHG Post author

      Different people respond differently. In criminal defense, we see a lot of people suffering from various types, and to various degrees, of mental illness. Not that we are competent to diagnose or fix it, but we get pretty good at spotting problems. They’re rarely as clear or predictable as people might think. You may well have had dozens of colleagues beset by anxiety and depression, but many were better at covering it up than others. It may well have affected their work product as well as their ability to stay on task, but how would you know?

      1. B. McLeod

        Well, it isn’t usually a surprise here because lawyers are the worst gossips in the local population, and failings in client performance usually make the rounds quickly. Also, it seems to often be tied to substance abuse problems growing out of control. The colleague who was being relatively successful with his coverup was a civil litigator. On the criminal side, I have had a couple of colleagues removed from representations by the court, one for complete unpreparedness and one who came to trial chemically impaired.

        1. SHG Post author

          When you see it, it isn’t a surprise. When you don’t see it, it’s a shock. The difference isn’t that someone is or isn’t suffering from a disability, but whether you see it, and recognize it as such.

      2. Dragoness Eclectic

        If I were a CDL, I would be concerned about depression in a judge, because I have noticed that Depression has a couple of friends it likes to bring along to work named Paranoia and Cyncism. Do you want a cynical paranoid deciding the sentences for your client?

        1. SHG Post author

          If you were a CDL, then all would be lost. But we do appreciate your takeaways from the group sessions.

          1. Billy Bob

            Leave Dragoness alone, will ya please? We do not want to loose her. Electric commenters around hear are in scarce supply. Barleycorn excepted.

  4. Noah

    While the people I’ve known who have suffered from depression are quite brilliant, my Google-fu tells me that there have been studies showing that the majority of people suffering from depression also experience cognitive dysfunction (Psychology Today, others). So anecdotes fail again.

    But perhaps the suffering judge (or other person) is starting from a higher level in the first place – Uncle Google says bipolar disorder may be four times as common among young adults who’d earned straight-A’s in school (study in British Journal of Psychiatry). What do we do then? We don’t necessarily want our judges to be dumb and happy. Can we tolerate some measure of cognitive dysfunction if we’re getting good judging (whatever that means) overall? Just writing that makes me react strongly – of course not – we wouldn’t accept the same if the issue was alcohol or drug dependence (also more prevalent among “smarter” people).

    There are tests to determine whether a particular mental illness is affecting cognitive ability; perhaps a “solution” is to require testing and treatment, as we do for those suffering from addiction.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or that swathe of nice people between the poles of stupid and nuts? Not to be derogatory to either, but having known a good number of brilliant bipolar folks, I would really hate the idea of their imposing sentence on a bad day, and really don’t care as much about their problems as the defendant’s.

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