If a judge is diagnosed with a potentially-debilitating brain disorder, should his recent decisions be subject to review and reconsideration, based solely on that fact?
The case concerns a judge (also reported here) in Atlanta who has been sentenced to 30 days in jail due to crimes he committed during an extramarital relationship with a stripper. He was arrested in a drug sting. Obviously, his legal and judicial career is over, and he’s probably done a lot of damage to his family life, as well. However, he seemed to be a competent judge, until about a year before his arrest, when his behavior became extremely erratic and reckless.
Recently, however, the disgraced former judge has stated, through his attorney, that he suffers from bi-polar disorder (which went undiagnosed until very recently), and that his mental state was altered by a head injury he sustained in a bicycle accident in 2000.
Throughout his career, this judge forged a reputation for showing very little leniency to criminal defendants, often sentencing them to the maximum punishments allowed by law. So, this has led some to suggest that his rulings and sentences in recent years should be reconsidered, and maybe even reversed, in some cases.
And this isn’t just the case of a criminal defense attorney making a desperate ploy to get a client’s conviction or sentence overturned. The U.S. attorney who prosecuted many of the relevant cases has already said that her office would consider all requests from defendants to re-evaluate their cases, to ensure that no miscarriage of justice occurred.
It will be very interesting to see how this all plays out. There’s certainly precedent for issues concerning a judge’s mental faculties calling into question some of his or her decisions. For example, the problem of an aging bench, and the mental impairments that often come with age, have created serious concerns about the validity of some older judges’ rulings, when there is evidence of mental impairment.
But the very nature of a judge’s job makes re-evaluating past decisions pretty difficult, especially when trying to determine if mental impairment caused the judge to make a legal error. Obviously, in cases of severe impairment, a judge might render a written opinion that devolves into incomprehensible gibberish. At that point, you can be pretty sure that his decision, at least in that particular case, can’t be trusted because of his compromised judgment. In most cases involving acquired mental impairment, the onset is usually gradual, and its effects, while serious, aren’t always readily apparent. And in almost all legal cases, there’s significant room for reasonable disagreement.
For that reason, there’s an appeals process, where a judge’s every ruling in a case can be challenged and reviewed for legal errors. If an appellate court has already determined that a judge’s ruling was valid, even if it can be proven that he would have rendered a different decision if he did not suffer from a mental illness, is there any cause to review that decision when the mental illness comes to light?
Intuitively, most people would probably say “no.” The judge’s ruling was appealed and reviewed by the appellate courts, with no finding of legal error. Why should it matter that the judge issued this ruling because he thought a pink elephant was whispering the correct ruling in his ear?
On the other hand, if a judge did not reach a decision through careful, reasoned consideration of the law and the relevant facts, I think a very strong case can be made that the decision is invalid, even if it’s “correct.” In a judicial system that expects its officers to act in a rational, deliberative, and impartial manner when rendering their decisions, the manner in which a judge reaches a decision is almost as important as the decision itself.
The reasoning by which a judge reaches a decision has an impact on how the judge’s decision can be used as precedent, potentially affecting the outcome of future cases.
Of course, there are always countervailing interests that make the application of this general principle kind of tricky. As I’ve mentioned before, an essential element of a fair and efficient legal system is finality. All parties benefit when they know that, at some point, a court’s decision is what it is, and that’s final. In criminal cases, this typically occurs when a jury acquits the defendant, or convicts them, with the judge handing down a sentence. Sometimes, the defendant appeals, and the decision is usually final when all appeals are exhausted. This process is sometimes long and drawn out, but there is usually a definite endpoint. One could argue that constantly going back and reviewing decisions when new information comes to light years later undermines this important objective.
I believe, however, that justice ultimately wins out in favor of convenience or efficiency, especially in criminal cases, when a person’s freedom, and maybe their life, is on the line.
It’s entirely possible that the vast majority of this judge’s past decisions will turn out to be perfectly valid. However, if there’s evidence that his judgment was compromised by a mental disorder or drug use, they need to be revisited. If this means that several criminal defendants will be given new trials, so be it.