Complying with the law

The recent legalization of marijuana in several states has apparently not yet prompted many inquiries to advisory committees, but two opinions have been issued on the possible judicial ethics repercussions of that change.

Most recently, the Washington State Ethics Advisory Committee stated that a judge may not permit a court employee to own a medical marijuana business even if the business fully complies with Washington state laws and regulations because federal law prohibits the possession, sale, and distribution of medical marijuana.  Washington Advisory Opinion 2015-2.

The committee concluded that, “even if owning a medical marijuana business may comply with the state statutory scheme, possessing, growing, and distributing marijuana remains illegal under federal law for both recreational and medical use. . . .  Although the Code does not generally prohibit a court employee from engaging in outside businesses or employment, operating a business in knowing violation of law undermines the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judiciary . . . , and is contrary to acting with fidelity and in a diligent manner consistent with the judge’s obligations under the Code.”

Last year, after Colorado decriminalized the use and possession of medicinal and small amounts of recreational marijuana, a judge asked the Judicial Ethics Advisory Board “whether a judge who engages in the personal recreational or medical use of marijuana (as opposed to commercial use) in private and in a manner compliant with the Colorado Constitution and all related state and local laws and regulations” violates the code of judicial conduct.  The board responded:  “Because the use of marijuana is a federal crime, a judge’s use of marijuana for any purpose is not a ‘minor’ violation of criminal law and therefore violates Rule 1.1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”  Colorado Advisory Opinion 14-1.

The board considered whether a judge’s personal marijuana use is a “minor” violation of the law because the Colorado code states in Rule 1.1(B) that “conduct by a judge that violates a criminal law may, unless the violation is minor, constitute a violation of the requirement that a judge must comply with the law.”  (This provision is not in the model code or codes in other states, although the model code notes in the preamble that “it is not contemplated that every transgression will result in disciplinary action.”)  Based on the minutes of the Committee to Consider Revisions to the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct, the advisory board concluded that Rule 1.1(B) exempted “as ‘minor’ only violations of relatively insignificant traffic offenses and local ordinances,” such as receiving a parking ticket or permitting a dog to run at large, “not state or federal drug laws.”  The board rejected the judge’s argument that the determination whether an offense is “minor” should be based on a “moral turpitude” test.

The board concluded:

We recognize that simple possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor under federal law and that, in some circumstances, marijuana use is an infraction punishable only by a civil penalty.  . . .   It is nevertheless a violation of federal criminal law and, in our view, while not necessarily a “serious” offense, it is not a “minor” offense within the meaning of Rule 1.1(B).  It is significantly more serious than the parking ticket and dog at large violation referred to in the Committee minutes, and is no less serious than the unlawful conduct of the judges involved in Sawyer and Vandelinde.

See In re Sawyer, 594 P.2d 805 (Oregon 1979) (temporary suspension of a judge as long as he was employed part-time as a teacher at a state-funded college in violation of a state constitutional prohibition); Matter of Vandelinde, 366 S.E.2d 631 (West Virginia 1988) (reprimand of a judge who had made excessive contributions to a political organization that supported his candidacy, a misdemeanor under the applicable statute, even though he had not been criminally charged).

The Colorado board did note that “even parking tickets can give rise to judicial discipline,” citing In re Harrington, 877 A.2d 570 (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline 2005), in which a former magistrate who repeatedly parked at expired meters and displayed parking tickets issued to others was banned from judicial office for 5 years.  See also In the Matter of Williams, 701 A.2d 825 (Delaware 1997) (censure and 3-month suspension without pay for a part-time judge who had 29 unpaid parking tickets, in addition to other misconduct); In the Matter of LaPorta, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Imposition of Discipline (Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline July 13, 2004) (removal of pro tempore judge who had accrued over $8,000 in parking tickets, in addition to other misconduct); In re Ballentine, Opinion and order (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline August 4, 2015) (removal for pleading guilty to 3 misdemeanors for dismissing several of her own parking tickets, not filing state and federal tax returns for 5 years, failing to remit approximately $130 in sales taxes owed by a shoe store she owed, and opening the shoe store without a license).

Dog violations have also led to judicial discipline.  See In the Matter of Post, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct October 12, 2010) (admonition for failing to appear for sentencing on dog-running-at-large violation and failing for 7 months to pay the fine imposed, in addition to other misconduct); In the Matter of Van Woeart, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct August 20, 2012) (censure for failing to expeditiously transfer tickets issued to herself and her sons for violations of dog-control ordinance, sending messages to the judges of the transferee court, and failing to maintain proper records of the tickets).

The Colorado board noted that other states have disciplined judges for using and possessing marijuana, although it acknowledged marijuana use had been illegal under those states’ laws at the time.  It cited Matter of Marquardt, 778 P.2d 241 (Arizona 1989) (1-year suspension without pay for judge convicted of possession of a small quantity of marijuana); In re Peters, 715 S.E.2d 56 (Georgia 2011) (removal for obtaining and consuming marijuana at least once a week from March to May of 2010, in addition to other misconduct); In re Whitaker, 463 So. 2d 1291 (Louisiana 1985) (1-year suspension without pay for smoking marijuana on 2 occasions, in addition to other misconduct); In re Gilbert, 668 N.W.2d 892 (Michigan 2003) (censure and 6-month suspension for using marijuana at a Rolling Stones concert); In re Sherrill, 403 S.E.2d 255 (North Carolina 1991) (removal of judge who had been arrested for possessing marijuana, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia and had pled guilty to 3 felony charges); In re Toczydlowski, 853 A.2d 20 (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline 2004) (public reprimand for using marijuana); In re Binkoski, 515 S.E.2d 828 (West Virginia 1999) (public censure of former judge who had pled guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol and possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana and who had attempted to encourage a witness to be less than candid).  There are additional cases as well.  See also In the Matter of Pepe, 607 A.2d 988 (New Jersey 1992) (removal for using marijuana, in addition to other misconduct); Disciplinary Counsel v. Bowling, 937 N.E.2d 95 (Ohio 2010) (publicly reprimand for using marijuana); In re Coughenour, Stipulation and Order (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct September 6, 1991) (public admonishment for judge who had been charged with driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor and/or drugs and unlawful possession of marijuana under 40 grams).

Noting it was only authorized to provide “opinions ‘concerning the compliance of intended, future conduct with the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct,’ not regarding whether such conduct is censurable,” the Colorado board emphasized it was not addressing whether a judge who uses marijuana consistent with Colorado law should be disciplined.  Finally, the board stated, “having concluded that a judge’s use of marijuana violates Rule 1.1, we need not address whether it also violates the requirement in Rule 1.2 that judges ‘act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the . . . integrity . . . of the judiciary’ and ‘avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.’”

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