Richard Carlton, who runs the 9th Circuit's counseling hotline, said he gets a handful of calls a year from judges concerned that a colleague may be impaired.
"A lot of these situations resolve themselves pretty quickly," he said. "It often times turns out to be some kind of physical condition or some new medication somebody's taken, or they're in the process of transitioning from senior status to full retirement."
Over the past five years, the 10th US. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Colorado and five other Western states and has its own judicial health program, has addressed at least two complaints that could reflect mental decline.
One accused a senior district judge of falling asleep during a court proceeding.
The judge said a tiring family emergency may have been to blame and indicated that he would reduce his caseload and decline trials and lengthy hearings, according to a 2010 order by the circuit's chief judge.
The second complaint by a judge's former law clerk accused the judge of forgetfulness and erratic, abusive behavior. The judge underwent psychological screening and was cleared of any mental disability, according to a 2014 order by the circuit's chief judge.
The judges and complainants were not identified.
Canby encourages his colleagues to get ahead of any complaints by, like him, voluntarily declining to regularly hear cases at some point. In an article in the 9th Circuit's wellness newsletter, he said impaired judges threaten public confidence in the judicial branch.
"If a great majority of judges are determined to keep on judging until they are no longer mentally able to perform properly, instances of impaired judges still making decisions will multiply," he wrote. "The consequence of such behavior will be an unacceptably high rate of institutional damage."
Falling asleep during a court proceeding? If that's cause for forced retirement, we'd have quite a number of judicial emergencies...