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A series of three graphite portraits of a female judge.
Thomas Cian for ProPublica. Original photograph of Judge Shawndya Simpson by Jesse Ward.

New York Court Officials Complete Rare Review of Cases Handled by Judge Forced Into Retirement by Dementia

A review of dozens of Judge ShawnDya Simpson’s cases found the decisions to be rational, a disappointment for a man whose claims of innocence had been one of the judge’s last cases.

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In August, New York court officials made a sad and surprising announcement: ShawnDya Simpson, a 54-year-old judge, was retiring because of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was both a tragedy and a dilemma: How would anyone know whether the judge’s illness had affected her handling of cases in the months, maybe years before she was forced from the bench?

In October, court officials announced they would do something rare: conduct a review of scores of the judge’s orders and decisions to see if there were obvious examples of mistakes or misguided judgments.

This week, court officials announced the results of the review. Officials said a State Supreme Court justice had reviewed 40 of the judge’s decisions and orders, as well as 1,000 status conference orders on routine issues.

“None of the status conference orders or decisions on motions were found to be irrational,” said Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration.

“It was clear that the decisions and orders were written addressing the particular actions, in other words not block copied one from another, as they addressed particular facts and arguments in each individual motion and the decisions were appropriate to the arguments,” Chalfen added.

Chalfen said the review consisted of Simpson’s year sitting as a judge in the Bronx. Simpson had been moved to the Bronx from Brooklyn after complaints about her productivity, demeanor and failure to show up in court on time. Chalfen did not say why the review had been limited to Simpson’s final year.

Nelson Cruz had an intense interest in the outcome of the review. Cruz, convicted of murder when he was a teenager in Brooklyn in 1999, had been granted a long-sought hearing on his innocence by Simpson. He was optimistic, for Simpson had already overturned two convictions of men who had been sent away on murder charges, cases that involved questionable conduct by detectives who had also worked on Cruz’s case.

But over two years, Cruz and his lawyers came to worry something was wrong with Simpson. There were long delays and a series of what they regarded as inexplicable decisions in the case. In August 2019, just days before her illness led to a formal medical leave, she denied Cruz’s bid for freedom. When Cruz’s lawyers learned of the judge’s illness nearly a year later, they filed papers to have her decision vacated, arguing it was clear she had been impaired.

While Cruz’s case was handed off to another judge, the review announced by court officials held promise for Cruz and his lawyers: Any instance in which her decisions were determined to be flawed would bolster their own claim.

Informed of the review’s results, Justin Bonus, a lawyer for Cruz, said he remained confident he could establish Simpson was impaired when she denied his client’s motion to vacate his conviction.

“Her irrationality,” Bonus said, “was evident.”

Early onset Alzheimer’s is notoriously difficult to diagnose. When Simpson’s illness was confirmed by doctors in early 2020, she was said to be in the middle stages of the disease.

When Simson’s retirement was announced, some court officials, lawyers and others involved with the court system wondered about Simpson’s law secretary, what in the federal system is known as a judge’s clerk. Law secretaries have a daily and intimate window into a judge’s work, and indeed often do the lion’s share of case research and the drafting of written opinions.

Simpson’s law secretary has not responded to calls, emails and texts from ProPublica seeking her insight.

This week, asked if the review of Simpson’s cases involved discussions with her former law secretary, Chalfen said, “We do not get involved with a judge’s judicial decisions, which would include who would write a particular decision and order.”

Francis Shen, a lawyer and professor who has studied America’s aging judiciary, for whom questions of impairment have become more acute, said he was not surprised by the outcome of the review.

“It would be difficult to determine after the fact the ways in which gradual but real cognitive decline might affect courtroom decision-making and rulings,” Shen said. “Just because rulings are not ‘irrational’ does not mean they are not potentially problematic.”

Cruz’s case is currently assigned to Justice Raymond Rodriguez. It is not clear what next steps he is contemplating or when they might happen.

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