Ohio federal judge fights 'harmful' misconduct order over rejected psych exam

  • U.S. District Judge John Adams challenges misconduct finding over court-ordered mental health examination
  • D.C. Circuit arguments marked the first for U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

(Reuters) - A federal judge in Ohio on Thursday pushed an appellate court to revive his challenge to a first-of-its-kind order finding he committed misconduct by refusing to undergo a mental health examination, saying it was harming his reputation.

A lawyer for U.S. District Judge John Adams urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to reverse a judge's decision finding his case was moot after the Judicial Council of the 6th Circuit withdrew the examination requirement.

Paul Orfanedes, a lawyer for Adams with the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, said he was the only judge in the federal judiciary's 232-year history to be found guilty of misconduct for refusing to undergo a psychiatric examination.

Adams was just the second federal judge ever to be ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination. Orfanedes said that while the exam requirement was withdrawn, the misconduct finding remained, giving him sufficient standing to challenge the constitutionality of the council's decisions.

"We still have a judge, 18 years on the bench, a well-respected member of the judiciary, who has been found to have committed misconduct," Orfanedes said. "That is very harmful to his reputation."

But Kevin Soter, a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department defending the council's decisions, said any lingering reputational harm the Akron-based judge was suffering was not enough to keep the case alive.

"There just isn't enough left of this case," he said.

The case marked the debut appearance of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at oral arguments after the U.S. Senate in June confirmed her to the court.

Jackson, who is considered a possible future Supreme Court nominee, took an active role in questioning both lawyers but particularly Soter, as she queried why the council's "inherent stigmatizing" misconduct finding was not enough to give Adams a basis to sue.

"I don't understand why that doesn't give him a basis, where they don't retract that in addition to the examination order," Jackson asked.

U.S. Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan also questioned why Adams could not still sue, saying it "does seem like a real thing for a judge to have been found to have committed misconduct."

U.S. Circuit Judge Douglas Ginsburg was also on the panel.

The case stemmed from an investigation overseen by the Judicial Council into whether Adams, whom former President George W. Bush nominated in 2003, suffered from a disability that rendered him unable to carry out his duties.

That investigation came after Adams in 2013 threatened to hold a magistrate judge in contempt for missing a filing deadline in a Social Security case and other instances of hostility and disruptive behavior to judges.

A committee overseen by the council in 2015 found that Adams, by making the contempt threat and by declining to undergo a psychiatric evaluation it insisted upon in the investigation, had committed misconduct.

The Judicial Council in 2016 largely upheld the committee's decision. It ordered that Adams' cases be reassigned to other judges and that he undergo the psychiatric evaluation, which he continued to resist.

A review panel in 2017 upheld the public reprimand and the psychiatric examination requirement but overturned the reassignments order.

Adams then sued, arguing the Judicial Council lacked constitutional authority to require a psychiatric examination.

But after the Judicial Counsel dropped the mental health evaluation requirement in 2019, citing improvements in his behavior, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson dismissed the case as moot.

The case is Adams v. Judicial Council of the Sixth Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 20-5288.

For Adams: Paul Orfanedes of Judicial Watch

For the Judicial Council of the Sixth Circuit: Kevin Soter of the U.S. Justice Department

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.