Baseline responsibility

Maintaining consistency in sanctions between judicial discipline cases is always important but usually difficult because there is a wide range of misconduct, a variety of possible sanctions, and a small number of cases in each state.  Convictions for drunken driving, however, permit comparison, facilitating sanction parity.

At least 31 states have imposed public discipline on judges who have driven drunk.  Whether the other 19 states have not had a case involving drunken driving or have disposed of such cases privately cannot be determined.  Any state supreme court or conduct commission that does not impose public discipline for drunken driving risks the charge that it does not take that conduct seriously, an attitude that conflicts with the public policy for non-judges.  Rejecting an argument that a private reprimand was appropriate when the judge had shown contrition and pled guilty to first offense DWI, for example, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that “the position he enjoys as a sitting Judge requires that the resolution of this matter be known to the public.”  Commission on Judicial Performance v. Thomas, 722 So. 2d 629 (Mississippi 1998).

Similarly, the New Jersey Supreme Court explained in a judicial discipline case:  “We do not view offenses arising from the driving of an automobile while intoxicated with benign indulgence.  They are serious and deeply affect the safety and welfare of the public. . . .  They are not victimless offenses.”  In the Matter of Collester, 599 A.2d 1275 (New Jersey 1992).  Thus, the Court has several times publicly reprimanded judges who pled guilty to or were convicted of driving while intoxicated, but it has also censured judges whose conduct was aggravated because they left the scene of an accident or failed to cooperate with the police, and suspended a judge without pay for his second drunken driving offense.

In its 2012 annual report, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct emphasized that “DWI is a significant social problem” and described the evolution of its treatment of alcohol-related offenses.

Thirty years ago, a judge who committed such an offense, where there were no aggravating factors, may have received no more than a private caution or reprimand, even if the alcohol-fueled incident was a matter of public record. . . .

In recent years, the Commission has censured a number of judges who were guilty of driving while impaired or intoxicated, with the majority at times indicating that the more stringent sanction of suspension would be appropriate were the Commission authorized to impose it, and with some dissenters voting in favor of removal.

In the appropriate case, the Commission will not hesitate to impose the sanction of removal.

In most states, the baseline sanction for drunken driving is the lowest level of public sanction (usually a reprimand or admonition), but a more severe sanction is imposed if there are aggravating factors, such as an attempt to get out of the DWI charge by referring to the judicial office.  Michigan is an exception in that its standard sanction is harsher, a 90-day suspension without pay and censure, with the length of the suspension increased to 180 days if there are aggravating factors.  There were 9 public sanctions of judges for drunken driving in 2014.

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