Patricia Minaldi

In this 2013 photo, U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Minaldi speaks during the Empowering Women Luncheon in Sulphur, La. Minaldi, whose unusual behavior on the bench preceded her mysterious removal from a string of cases, was ordered to get treatment for alcoholism so severe a colleague believes she cannot take care of herself, according to court records released Thursday, April 13, 2017. (Marilyn Monroe/American Press via AP)

Marilyn Monroe

The first federal judge to be kicked off the bench was John Pickering in 1803, since when only seven more have met a similar fate.

This shows either that judges are preternaturally virtuous, or that impeachment is such a daunting rigmarole that they can more or less do what they want.

Pickering is suddenly relevant in Louisiana, for, according to his articles of impeachment, his offense was to preside over his New Hampshire court “in a state of total intoxication produced by the free and intemperate use of intoxicating liquors.”

That pretty much describes the demeanor of Patricia Minaldi, the only federal judge assigned to Lake Charles, who has been on medical leave since late last year after being ordered to get treatment for her alcoholism. It is a sad story that it would be indecent to dwell on if only she would resign and leave the public to wish her a full recovery.

But the other day she gave a television interview in which she said that, once over this “bump in the road,” she might return to the bench. It is unlikely that her colleagues will let her hear any more cases, but she can remain a federal judge on full salary for the rest of her life unless Congress chooses the nuclear option.

Minaldi says she plans to continue her life's work of protecting the public, but the best way to do so now must be to step aside. Although the mere threat of impeachment has been enough to make many judges do so, it doesn't always work.

Take, for instance, Tom Porteous of Louisiana's Eastern District, who clung on for years after being exposed as a crook until the Senate convicted him in 2009.

Minaldi's problems with booze have been so severe and highly publicized that the public she wants to serve would lack any confidence in her and officers of the court would always be on the look-out for signs of a relapse. There have been plenty since she got a DWI three years ago, and several hearings had to be called off because Pickering himself could not have been more pickled. She has blown it for good

Pickering was a Federalist, which his allies thought was the real reason Thomas Jefferson was so keen to oust him. They argued that a fondness for the bottle did not justify impeachment, for which the constitution requires evidence of “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Congress nevertheless went along with the president, and the House in 1873 again decided that drunkenness met the constitutional standard by impeaching Mark Delahay of Kansas. Delahay, who was habitually in his cups on and off the bench, quit before the Senate could hold a trial.

The constitution also specifies that federal judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behavior,” but provides no means of holding them to that vague requirement. When Harry Claiborne of Nevada was convicted of income tax evasion 30 years ago he became a federal prison inmate and a federal judge at the same time. Indeed, he declared an intention to resume judging on his release, forcing Congress to impeach and convict.

Four judges have been acquitted in the Senate, and two, in addition to Delahay, quit while trial was pending, bringing the impeachment total in the history of the Republic to 15. That, making due allowance for the superior integrity of judicial nominees, is a pretty puny number. But that is by design. A judiciary that is appointed for life and immovable save by impeachment is as proof against political meddling as it is possible to be.

Still, there might be a case for a less cumbersome method of running the unfit off the bench. It is absurd that nothing short of impeachment can force the likes of Minaldi to go if she chooses to resist. Perhaps, when push comes to shove, she won't, but it was apparent in her TV interview that she does not regard herself as disqualified.

To be sure, she seemed compos mentis, but court records indicate she is at an “assisted living facility,” having been diagnosed with “severe Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome,” which is alcohol-induced brain rot. Her illness left her unable to take care of herself or manage her affairs, according to an interdiction lawsuit filed by a friend, the magistrate who worked under her in Lake Charles. Meanwhile, other judges are handling her cases and we continue to pay her salary. This can't be on much longer.

E-mail James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com