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The Law's Drinking Problem Isn't Limited to Lawyers

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 19, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The legal profession has a drinking problem. More than one in five attorneys is a problem drinker, according to a study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and rates of alcoholism are much higher in attorneys than in the general public.

But attorneys aren't the only legal professionals with drinking problems, as recent news regarding a federal judge in Louisiana reminds us. U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi was removed from the bench and, recently disclosed documents show, ordered to treatment for alcoholism.

Judge Taken From Cases, Ordered Into Treatment

Judge Minaldi's "mysterious removal from a string of cases," as the Associate Press describes it, coincided with a mandate that she complete a 90-day substance abuse rehab program. Minaldi was ordered into rehab by Carl E. Steward, the chief judge of the Fifth Circuit, court records show.

The records revealing U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi's alcoholism don't answer whether it was a factor in the secretive interruptions in her Louisiana courtroom. But the documents show she moved into an assisted living facility specializing in "memory care" within three months of presiding over a criminal trial that was cut short without explanation.

Minaldi had been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. That syndrome is connected to severe alcohol abuse and includes symptoms such as the loss of short term memory, mental confusion, and deficient executive functions.

The documents were revealed after Minaldi's friend and colleague, U.S. Magistrate Kathleen Kay, sued, challenging Minaldi's "physical and mental capacity to manage her personal and financial affairs."

A Downward Spiral

The revelation was not entirely unpredictable, however. According to the AP:

The first hints of trouble came in February 2014, when Minaldi pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge and was sentenced to one year of probation. Dashcam video obtained by local news organizations showed her arguing with an officer and refusing to get out of her car before police arrested her outside her Lake Charles home.

Two years later, in February 2016, Minaldi was pulled off a man's fraud case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures. Court documents released publicly at the AP's request showed that even basic requirements - like telling jurors the burden of proof lies with prosecutors, not the defense - weren't followed.

For legal professionals -- judges, attorneys, law students, etc. -- struggling with alcohol, there are many ways to get help. There is a national helpline for "Judges Helping Judges," as well as confidential lawyer assistance programs in every state.

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