Baton Rouge-based reporter Michael Kunzelman was reporting on the police killing of a black man outside a convenience store last summer when a source called to encourage him to look into a case in front of a federal judge that had been mysteriously reassigned. It wasn’t the easiest time to be chasing down tips: the Alton Sterling shooting was swiftly followed by the killings of three law enforcement officials and then catastrophic flooding in Louisiana’s capital.
But Kunzelman didn’t forget about it.
When he was free, he began an investigation into the performance of U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi, work that would take months and aggressive use of public records. It culminated with the discovery last week she’d been ordered to seek treatment for alcoholism so severe that a colleague believed she couldn’t take care of herself. For his work Kunzelman wins this week’s Best of the States award.
People in the legal community were hesitant to comment for fear of offending a powerful judge. ... But the key question motivating Kunzelman was Minaldi’s performance on the bench.
Over years of courts reporting in Louisiana, Kunzelman has developed a network of legal sources. But people in the legal community were hesitant to comment for fear of offending a powerful judge. Minaldi had pleaded guilty in 2014 to a drunken driving charge so the question of whether the mysterious dealings in her courtroom were alcohol related was ever present. But the key question motivating Kunzelman throughout his reporting was Minaldi’s performance on the bench. And the stakes were very high since she’s the only federal judge assigned to the Lake Charles Division of western Louisiana.
Kunzelman’s initial tip urged him to investigate the judge’s unexplained removal from a case against a south Louisiana sheriff and several subordinates in March of 2016. The resulting story in September 2016 used court documents to detail how Minaldi was in the middle of accepting the first of two guilty pleas by a pair of former sheriff's deputies when a federal prosecutor cut her off mid-sentence to stop the proceedings. The plea hearing was completed that evening, 70 miles away in another city in front of another judge.
Kunzelman continued to peel away at the story. After a source tipped him off to another incident that was not in the court record, he used anonymous sources to report on an eyebrow-raising incident in which Minaldi interrupted court proceedings to meet in closed chambers with a retired judge who also happened to be an attorney for the sheriff. He reported how Minaldi had been taken off another criminal case following a series of routine trial procedure mistakes – in part by using documents the AP petitioned to have unsealed. A mistrial was declared after the prosecutor said he was told to take on Minaldi's role of questioning and instructing jurors
All together Kunzelman wrote nine stories about Minaldi’s behavior on the bench including news in January that she’d taken medical leave. But even then there was no information on what might have motivated her mysterious behavior.
Attorneys for the AP and a Lake Charles newspaper successfully challenged the sealing of some records revealing that Minaldi was required to get treatment for alcoholism.
It wasn’t until attorneys for the AP and a Lake Charles newspaper successfully challenged the sealing of some records that it was revealed that Minaldi was required by a judicial superior to get treatment for alcoholism. The documents stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a longtime friend and colleague of the judge’s that claimed she was unable to take care of her own personal needs or handle daily activities. The resulting April 13 story detailed how the unsealed records claimed Minaldi was diagnosed with a brain disorder linked to alcohol abuse and had moved into an assisted living facility.
For determined reporting that revealed the issues behind a federal judge's aberrant performance, Kunzelman receives this week's $300 Best of States award.