“He’d waited decades to argue his innocence. She was a judge who believed in second chances. No one knew she suffered from Alzheimer’s.”
The Alzheimer’s epidemic is affecting the U.S. justice system, and not just from the standpoint of prison inmates. Today, Propublica published a feature by journalist Joe Sexton about a 54-year-old judge with early onset Alzheimer’s who came to learn of her diagnosis and retire — but only after some cases had already been affected.
ShawnDya Simpson joined the New York City court system in 2003 when she was one of the youngest judges ever elected to Brooklyn’s Civil Court. She had served as a prosecutor and eventually made her way up to serving as a State Supreme Court judge. She “could pick a jury and remember everyone’s first and last names 45 people deep,” her husband Jacob Walthour told Propublica. But as her Alzheimer’s progressed unbeknownst to her family and colleagues, her behavior became erratic, her decisions strayed from her usual reason, and her memory skills ebbed: “In the morning, we’d speak, and then later she couldn’t recall it.”
Her situation is not a complete anomaly. The number of people in the U.S. who are living with Alzheimer’s grows every year.
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.