D.C. Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon, a veteran of 16 years on the bench, has begun treatment for alcohol abuse after complaints from prosecutors and defense lawyers that on two occasions this year she appeared confused and disoriented in court, according to court sources.
Bacon, 55, who has twice been mentioned as a possible candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court, recently spent three weeks in the hospital after lawyers notified court officials that during a May 19 hearing Bacon had acted erratically.
On that occasion Bacon asked one lawyer and his client five times to identify themselves, requested that a defendant who had been released be placed in the cell block behind the courtroom and gave a rambling response when informed that the acting chief judge of the court wanted to speak with her, according to transcripts.
Questions about Bacon's conduct in that hearing were raised Thursday when lawyers in another case asked Bacon to remove herself from a sentencing because of possible continued impairment. Bacon denied that request without comment.
Bacon's conduct in a Jan. 23 hearing also has been questioned. In that instance, a prosecutor reported to her supervisor that Bacon was "unintelligible" at times as she revoked a man's work-release privileges and sent him to jail to finish his sentence.
"On two occasions her chin fell out of her hands and she hit the top of the bench," the prosecutor stated in a memo filed with her supervisors in the U.S. attorney's office and obtained by The Washington Post.
"She frequently appeared as if she were about to fall asleep, and on at least one occasion she slipped extremely far down into her chair," the memo stated. "In summary, all of Judge Bacon's mannerisms and expressions were consistent with those of a person under the influence of some substance."
In a statement released late yesterday, Bacon said: "The events noted by the Post reflect, in part, courthouse gossip, and, in part, the colored recollection of lawyers and litigants who may be dissatisfied by my decisions."
Bacon added, "Be that as it may, I have consulted a physician. I have taken much-needed rest and treatment. At this time my physician certifies that I am able to return to work. I do not suffer from any physical or mental impairment and I have a regimen designed to prevent any recurrence of the combination of factors which left me exhausted."
Bacon, a Harvard Law School graduate, is known as one of the court's ablest and hardest-working judges. Judges and lawyers noted that she appeared to have suffered a lengthy period of pain and depression after both legs were broken when she was hit by a car two years ago. They said she also had encountered problems trying to care for her seriously ill mother.
Bacon resumed her duties late in June after first spending several days in chambers and assuring Chief Judge Fred B. Ugast that she was enrolled in an alcohol treatment program, sources said. Lawyers and judges said there has been nothing unusual about Bacon's conduct on the bench since her return.
Sources said court officials have reviewed the incidents involving Bacon and decided that her actions did not appear to harm any defendant.
Last Thursday, lawyers Thomas Mauro and Oscar B. Goodman asked Bacon in a written motion to assign the sentencing of their client, Sante Kimes, to another judge. The lawyers wrote that the defendant believed Bacon could not bring "strict neutrality of mind and disposition" to the sentencing because of "the impairment which the judge suffers." Bacon denied the motion.
The Jan. 23 incident prompted the memo from the prosecutor to her superiors, but officials in the U.S. attorney's office made no formal complaint to court officials because they believed the action Bacon had taken -- revoking a defendant's work-release privileges -- was justified.
The May 19 incident, however, brought about an immediate flurry of activity. Prosecutors summoned a senior assistant U.S. attorney to the courtroom, while another senior prosecutor called Judge Reginald B. Walton, who was acting as chief judge that day. Defense lawyers also called Walton, who in turn called Bacon's chambers and asked her to leave the bench to speak with him.
"Judge Bacon never makes any mistakes . . . but there were just a number of them . . . , " said a lawyer who was scheduled to appear before her that day but hastily requested a continuance. "She was not able to follow what was happening. If you told her something she did not remember it."
A transcript of the morning proceedings shows that Bacon frequently seemed confused. At one point she announced in court that Walton wanted to speak with her, telling those in the courtroom that she would hang up if asked about the case at hand.
"Ordinarily, I do not take calls from anybody because I believe that everybody ought to be in the courtroom to say what he or she has to say," Bacon said, according to the transcript. "I assure you that if anybody has anything to say about you or if anybody has anything to say about the United States, I'll hang up on them. Okay?"
Bacon did not return to the bench that day. Sources said that during the meeting, Walton and Judge Joseph Hannon, a friend of Bacon's, told her they thought she needed to see a doctor. Soon after, she voluntarily entered a hospital program, sources said.
The D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure has interviewed lawyers about the incidents. In the case of a drinking problem, a former commission member said, the commission likely would first ensure that the judge was receiving proper treatment, and then take "sterner measures" only in case of a relapse.
Chief Judge Ugast declined to comment on Bacon's situation. Sources said he is monitoring her performance.
Bacon, a Republican, was appointed to the Superior Court by President Nixon in September 1970 after a prominent career as a Justice Department attorney. She was mentioned in news stories as one of six persons Nixon was considering in 1971 for the Supreme Court. A decade later, President Reagan was reported to be considering her as a possible successor for retiring Justice Potter Stewart.
Bacon also has been mentioned at least twice as a candidate for a seat on the D.C. Court of Appeals.