A story out of Southeast Texas is raising questions about when judges should step down or be removed if they're diagnosed with a potentially debilitating disease.

The Houston Chronicle's Samantha Ketterer reports that 72-year-old Justice Laura Carter Higley of the First Court of Appeals in Houston was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in mid-October - almost two years since she began experiencing mild neurocognitive issues in November of 2017.

Justice Higley is currently at the center of a legal guardianship battle between her husband and her two sons. Her children argue that the judge is unable to care for her own physical health or manage her own financial affairs, and that she's unable to drive herself to work.

However, Ketterer reports that Justice Higley has played a part in deciding civil and criminal cases since March, although her name does not appear on any appeals cases decided since her diagnosis.

Under Texas' Constitution, Ketterer reports, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has the right to remove a judge from office if a disability is found to be interfering with their duties, but it's unclear if that's the case with Higley.

Higley, a Republican, has served on the First Court of Appeals since January of 2003. Even if she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it's not a given that her ability to perform her duties would be severely impacted. Alzheimer’s typicaly manifests in 7 stages, the first 4 of which involve mild to moderate declines in memory and cognitive functions. According to the Alzheimer's Association, many people can continue to work during the early stages of the disease.

Attorney Lillian Hardwick tells Ketterer that while Alzheimer's may cause patients to have difficulty remembering some things, those patients may still have no problem reciting the legal code and making decisions. Hardwick adds that patients like Higley may fear losing their retirement benefits as well, or just worry about having to leave their profession early due to an illness. Either way, removing Higley would mean proving that Alzheimer's has impaired her ability to perform her duties as a judge.

Higley's sons seem certain that their mother needs to step down, but it will ultimately be up to Justice Higley and her colleagues.

Personally, I'd hate to see someone forced to step down if their disease is currently manageable, especially if they're passionate about their work. On the other hand, a court of appeals justice decides on matters that could have a lasting impact on how we all live our lives.

What are your thoughts?


For information about how Alzheimer’s changes the brains and impacts the lives of patients, visit the Alzheimer’s section of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

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