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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Saturday, May 30, 2015

When a Judge is Mentally Ill

Judge Brenda K. Sanders
36th District Judge Brenda K. Sanders could be the first judge in Michigan history to be removed from the bench due to mental illness. In March, a special master [appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court] conducted a hearing after which he concluded that Judge Sanders was "psychotic".

The case, initially lodged through a complaint filed by the Judicial Tenure Commission, contained allegations that Judge Sanders suffered from paranoid delusions about a conspiracy to remove her from the bench in Detroit. She detailed her irrational fears in a letter to U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade.

Following an investigation by the Master, findings of fact were made which resulted in the Judicial Tenure Commission recommending removal of Judge Sanders from the bench based on her mental disability and judicial misconduct.  To date, however, Judge Sanders has refused to resign or retire.

Among her other reported problems, Judge Sanders had a 400 case backlog, took an extended medical leave found to be fraudulent, stated to the U.S. Attorney that she was being framed as a suspect in what she characterized as the suspicious deaths of other 36th District Court Judges, and claimed that she was evicted from her home in Detroit by the Michigan Supreme Court.

The case brings into focus the problem of mental illness among members of the bar and the judiciary. Lawyers and judges do operate in a stressful environment, fraught with adversarial proceedings, client and public expectations, with every decision subjected to continuous review.

Over here at the Law Blogger, we work with veteran litigators all day every day. It's just not an easy road.

Sometimes, the pressures of the job catch-up with the judge or the lawyer. What should be done when the legal professional starts to unravel mentally?

In the case of Judge Sanders, her lawyer has acknowledged his client's mental illness. Nevertheless, he has advocated for allowing her to retire on her own accord, with dignity.

As of this date, the case remains pending at the Michigan Supreme Court. Previously scheduled oral argument has been canceled and no argument is on the High Court's docket. The Supreme Court could simply decide the case based on the file it currently holds, or it could order oral argument.

When a judge or a lawyer is having trouble with mental illness, alcoholism or substance abuse, the Lawyer and Judges' Assistance Program is available to them through their required membership in the State Bar of Michigan. Also, the American Bar Association has established the Judicial Wellness Initiative.

In some cases, however, like the case of Judge Sanders, the legal professional will not take the necessary first step to recovery: accepting personal responsibility. Then the next step: accepting professional help.

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