U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi was removed from St. Charles, Louisiana jury trial for criminal fraud in February, then her replacement declared a mistrial. Nobody knew why until the Associated Press got transcripts unsealed. They do not give one great confidence in the management of the justice system.
In one unsealed transcript (PDF), federal prosecutors and a public defender jointly called U.S. District Judge Donald Walter ,who took over the case from Minaldi, to ask him to grant a mistrial. The chief judge had assigned Walter to the case in an order that cited Minaldi’s inability to be present at the trial, but provided no additional explanation.
Minaldi was unable to be present because she doesn’t have the requisite awareness of the world around her or of the requirements of her job to be a judge. The botched trial included this ominous incident:
On the last day of the trial before it was suspended, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Moore was questioning a witness about the defendant’s grant application which had been filled out on a computer. Judge Minaldi interrupted the witness to ask what a “drop-down box” and “drop-down menus” were.
“I have no idea what that means,” Minaldi said, regarding the reference to drop-down menus. “No offense, but if I don’t understand it, I don’t think anybody else is going to understand it,” she continued. “I’ve been to law school. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I have no idea what y’all are talking about.” After another question—Minaldi didn’t understand references to “Y’s and yeses” in relation to the answers to yes or no questions on the application—the judge recessed the court for lunch.
“Get your act together. Okay,” Minaldi told Moore. “I have no idea what’s going on here. Get your act together.”
Because it was HIS fault she had no idea what was going on.
You know, for years I’ve been joking in legal ethics seminars, as we discuss law and technology competence, that the average judge is five years behind the average lawyer in technological expertise, and the average lawyer is five years behind the average 12-year-old. This gap, however, isn’t funny when it get as bad as what that transcript shows. Obviously Judge Minaldi doesn’t use a computer, or if she does, she uses it as a doorstop. In 2016, not knowing what a drop-down menu is comparable to not knowing what a TV was in 1975. A judge this ignorant of the world around her cannot possibly render competent judgement about what occurs in her court; she’s living in 1985. She doesn’t understand the culture; she doesn’t know how people live today, and worst of all, she can’t access the main source of information available to everyone else.
When I read the transcript, I assumed she had to be ancient, but she’s just 57 (nominated by President Bush in 2003—helluva pick, Bushie!) There’s no excuse for a judge being that out of touch, and I’m sure she’s not the only one. This alone should get her retired, but it wasn’t even the main reason for her removal or the mistrial.
In the transcript of the phone call, the public defender, Cristie Gautreaux Gibbens, described to Judge Walter voir dire, where the judge questions jurors, explains their duties, and dismisses individuals who appear unfit or unwilling to be objective and fair after objections and challenges by the attorneys in the case. Incredibly, Judge Minaldi didn’t ask jurors about their citizenship, explain the burden of proof, the presumption of innocence, or the defendant’s Constitutional right under the 5th Amendment not to testify. There were no preliminary instructions on the juror’s duties or the requirement that they refrain from discussing the case, either.
When the prosecutors asked for curative measures to be taken and Gibbens moved for a mistrial, Minaldi explained why the instructions had been wanting: “I forgot!” Seriously…she told the lawyers, according to the transcript, “You know, it’s so seldom that we have jury trials here, I forget. OK. I forget but I rely on you to remember.” She then ordered Assistant U.S. Attorney John Luke Walker, one of the prosecutors, to instruct the jury, since she didn’t know how any more, presumably. Walker instructed jurors about reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence and the need to refrain from discussing the case, but now he moved for a mistrial too, joining the defense. Walker explained that having him, in essence, do the judge’s job made him “an arm of the court, and I think that prejudices all parties and I don’t think that’s curable.”
He was right. The judge was replaced and the trial began afresh, but the more important issue is why Minaldi is presiding over cases at all. Where is the oversight of judicial competence? She was also removed from a criminal case without explanation in March—gee, I wonder why?—but she’s still a judge. Why? And how many federal judges—they are supposed to be the best ones. you know—are as clueless as Patricia Minaldi?
Pointer and Facts: ABA Journal