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Federal judge who faced psych exam over ‘antisocial’ behavior says order was unconstitutional

U.S. District Judge John R. Adams must convince the D.C. Circuit that his reputation remains bruised, even after a psychiatric evaluation found no diagnosable mental disorder and the Judicial Council put the case to bed. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — One of only two federal judges in the 232-year history of the judiciary who has been ordered by an oversight board to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, U.S. District Judge John R. Adams has a mootness problem as he fights to restore his name.

“The harms are concrete and tangible,” Judicial Watch attorney Paul J. Orfanedes, representing Adams, insisted Thursday morning at oral arguments before the D.C. Circuit.

Adams is seeking a reversal after U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson dismissed his lawsuit last year against the Judicial Council of the Sixth Circuit, which encompasses the Northern District of Ohio, where Adams has been on the bench since 2003, appointed by President George W. Bush.

About 10 years into that tenure, Adams faced complaints from four other judges that prompted the acting chief judge to convene an investigation by a special committee.

Among allegations of antisocial behavior, Adams was accused of blocking in the car of an intern who accidentally parked in his space, and of bumping into a magistrate judge on a run and then sprinting away without seeing if they were hurt. 

Adams, too, was accused of abusing his judicial discretion, namely by issuing a show-cause order to a U.S. magistrate judge who missed a deadline to submit a report, and publicly remanding a federal public defender for issuing subpoenas in a criminal case. 

The committee ordered Adams to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Adams objected but later underwent an exam by a psychiatrist of his choosing, furnishing a report that said he didn’t suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. 

Adams sued the Judicial Council in 2017 after it affirmed the decision adopting the committee's recommendations, complete with a reprimand and orders that Adams not get any new case assignments for two years. By 2018, however, the council had discontinued its investigation and withdrew the requirements about Adams submitting to additional mental health evaluations. With no new issues cropping up over the next 12 months, it fully dismissed the complaint.

This in turn led to dismissal of Adams' suit by the nevertheless sympathetic Judge Jackson. "While the court does not doubt that the plaintiff suffered consequences while fighting to clear his name, it expects that he understands, better than most civil litigants, the limits on a federal court’s ability to right every wrong and the constitutional need for a live case or controversy," Jackson wrote.

Pushing the D.C. Circuit to affirm, Justice Department attorney Kevin Benjamin Soter expanded upon the mootness issue in a May brief for the council.

“Case law makes clear that where reputational injury is the lingering effect of an otherwise moot aspect of a lawsuit, no meaningful relief is possible and the injury cannot satisfy the requirements of Article III,” Soter wrote. 

At oral arguments Thursday, Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan prodded Soter on that position.

“You’re not saying the reputational harm isn’t real, right?” Srinivasan asked. “Because it sounds like it’s real.”

“No we aren’t saying it’s not real, but we are saying it’s not sufficient on Article III,” Soter replied.

“You’re saying there may be some spillover harm from the misconduct, but there is not enough?”

“Yes, there’s not enough to support Article II jurisdiction.”

Srinivasan, an Obama appointee, was one of three judges on the panel considering Adams' appeal. They did not indicate how they will rule.

The brief from Judge Adams argues that there is still a tangible wrong that the courts can right.

“A judgment declaring the examination order ultra vires or otherwise unlawful will help to remove the ‘sting’ of the order and limit the harm it continues to cause to Judge Adams, granting him meaningful relief,” Orfanedes wrote with fellow Judicial Watch attorney Scott Popper. 

The only other member of the federal judiciary ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, U.S. District Judge John H. McBryde, took senior status in 2018. McBryde was appointed to the Northern District of Texas in 1990, what was the first Bush administration, and sanctioned in 1997 after an investigation found that he belittled and verbally abused attorneys and overreacted to perceived violations of his rules. The judge sued but eventually lost after a seven-year legal battle.

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