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Why a 96-year-old judge was just banned from the bench for a year

Haiyun Jiang/ Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

(WASHINGTON) — As an age debate rages around members of Congress, a 96-year-old federal judge has just been barred from hearing cases for at least a year.

Judge Pauline Newman, who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit for 39 years, was suspended Wednesday after Chief Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore determined she was no longer able to perform her job, according to court documents.

“Unfortunately, earlier this year mounting evidence raised increasing doubts about whether Judge [Pauline] Newman is still fit to perform the duties of her office. When such evidence is brought to the attention of the Chief Judge and the Judicial Council, there is an obligation to investigate the matter,” the Judicial Council of the Federal Circuit wrote in a court order Wednesday.

“The evidence establishes reasonable concerns that Judge Newman suffers from a disability preventing her from effectively discharging the duties of her office,” the council wrote in a court order.

Newman received a lifetime appointment by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

The Judicial Council alleged that Newman refused “multiple requests” for a meeting and that “multiple colleagues attempted to speak to Judge Newman about her fitness.”

“She refused to speak to them at all or quickly terminated an attempt to discuss the issue,” the council said in the order.

The suspension could be extended if she continues to refuse to participate in a court investigation into concerns she is unable to perform her duties, the court said.

After receiving a complaint about Newman, Moore appointed a special committee on March 24 to launch an investigation into whether Newman was still able to perform the functions of her office.

In court filings, Newman pushed back against allegations, claiming she made “numerous attempts” to resolve the issue in a “truly cooperative and collaborative manner.”

Lawyers for Newman also allege that the process itself and the proposed sanctions are unconstitutional because they undermine Congress’ “sole power of impeachment.”

Greg Dolin, an attorney for Newman, told ABC News they plan to file a petition for review with the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability and they will continue to press the case in a district court, where they filed a suit arguing that the suspension is unconstitutional and violates due process.

Newman alleged in court documents that she had a conversation with Moore on March 3 in which Moore said she had probable cause to believe Newman “suffers from a disability” and offered to informally resolve the issue by “demanding that Judge Newman resign or at least take senior status.”

Newman alleged that Moore told her the requirement to step down from active duty was “non-negotiable.”

The order issued Wednesday said more than 20 interviews were conducted with court staff as part of the investigation into Newman’s fitness.

“Those interviews, along with numerous emails sent by Judge Newman, provided overwhelming evidence that Judge Newman may be experiencing significant mental problems including memory loss, lack of comprehension, confusion, and an inability to perform basic tasks that she previously was able to perform with ease,” according to the order.

The order alleged that Newman has “threatened to have staff arrested, forcibly removed from the building, and fired. She accused staff of trickery, deceit, acting as her adversary, stealing her computer, stealing her files, and depriving her of secretarial support.”

In May, the court issued an order for Newman to undergo a 30- to 45-minute interview with a neurologist and full neuro-psychological exam, which would involve six hours of cognitive testing — but the council claimed Newman refused to comply with the order, according to documents.

The council found that by refusing the examinations, Newman committed misconduct, according to court documents.

“The effect of Judge Newman’s refusal to comply with the Order was to thwart this Council’s ability to determine whether Judge Newman has a disability that renders her unable to perform the duties of her important office. An unjustified thwarting of a key part of the investigation into disability is recognized under the Act as misconduct,” according to the court order.

Dolin disputed claims that Newman refused to undergo examinations by physicians, saying she has been examined by a neurologist and a forensic psychologist who spent hours with Newman. Dolin said the physicians who examined Newman found her capable of performing her duties, information that was submitted to the court.

“Judge Newman is not afraid of these tests,” Dolin said. “If a physician were to tell her she is no longer able to perform her duties in the morning, the president will have her resignation in the afternoon.”

Dolin alleged that the committee only wants to hear from the doctors that it hand-picked and it is not committed to accepting the results provided by two independent doctors who examined Newman.

“Chief Judge Moore and the committee she appointed have been interested in one thing and one thing only — keeping Judge Newman off the bench via the exercise of raw power unconstrained by statutory requirements, constitutional limits, any notions of due process, conflict of interest rules, or even basic fairness,” Newman’s lawyers claimed in August court documents.

Dolin said Newman does not want to step down because she believes she has more to contribute, including unique views on patent law, which is only heard in the federal circuit. Newman holds degrees from Vassar College, Columbia University, Yale University and New York University School of Law and taught at George Mason University School of Law.

The court did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

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