Marching up-date

To up-date the Tuesday blog post on judges’ participating in marches, vigils, and similar issue-related community activities, note that the Connecticut Committee on Judicial Ethics has just posted a relevant new opinion. In Connecticut Informal Opinion 2020-3, the committee advised that a judicial officer may not participate in “A Silent March of Black Female Attorneys of Connecticut” by meeting marchers on the steps of the Supreme Court and reading part of the state constitution even if he is not introduced, does not identify himself by name or title, does not wear a robe, does not permit his name or title to be used in advertising, does not interpret the constitutional provision, and does not speak with the media. The opinion notes that the judicial officer’s identity could be easily ascertained and that supporters of the march are encouraged to bring protest signs, which might, refer to police brutality and/or other pending cases, and will be wearing “We Can’t Breathe” buttons, which refer to the George Floyd case and similar police abuse cases.

Marching

Judges sometimes ask judicial ethics advisory committees whether they can participate in marches, vigils, and similar issue-related community events.  This is the advice committees have provided:

  • Before attending a march, rally, or protest, judges must assume their participation will be scrutinized, publicized, and depicted in reports of the event, including in press coverage or on social media; and consider whether participation “would appear to a reasonable person” to undermine the judge’s “independence, integrity, or impartiality or demean the judicial office,” which is an objective standard. Judges should examine the official title of an event, its stated mission, its sponsors, and its organizers.  If a judge participates in a march, rally, or protest focused on social, legal, or political issues that may become the subject of litigation or that is sponsored or organized by individuals or entities who regularly appear in state court proceedings, a reasonable person may have cause to question the judge’s independence and impartiality when making decisions about those issues, individuals, or entities in subsequent cases.  Judges must also scrupulously avoid any extra-judicial activity tied to an organization that practices invidious discrimination.  Judges should not participate in a march, rally, or protest if such participation could reasonably be viewed as supporting or opposing a candidate for public office or as speaking publicly on behalf of a political organization.  Even if a march, rally, or protest relates to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice, there are potential ethical pitfalls.  Even assuming attendance at a march, rally, or protest is appropriate in the first instance, a judge must remain vigilant and be prepared to leave if the event proves problematic.  Unless an event is directly related to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice, judges should refrain from publicizing their affiliation with the judicial branch when participating.  Arizona Advisory Opinion 2018-6..
  • A judge may attend ceremonies held by law enforcement agencies to honor officers killed in the line of duty. Florida Advisory Opinion 1992-34.
  • A judge may attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving candlelight vigil if it is not a fund-raising event and the judge’s attendance would not be announced. Florida Advisory Opinion 1995-41.
  • A judge may participate in a “March for Science” if it is centered on matters that are unlikely to come before the court. To determine whether to participate in an issue-related gathering, a judge should thoughtfully examine whether the issues might be likely to come before the court or adversely impact judicial independence or the appearance of impropriety or the appearance of impropriety or bias.  Illinois Advisory Opinion 2019-1.
  • A judge may not participate in the Women’s March on Washington scheduled for the day after the presidential Inauguration. Massachusetts Letter Opinion 2016-10.
  • Judges may not participate in a candlelight vigil celebrating the one millionth child served by CASA programs across the country even if the vigil is non-partisan and not connected with fund-raising. New Jersey Advisory Opinion 2008-1.
  • A judge must not participate in a high-profile, apparently non-partisan march to recognize the importance of scientific endeavors and rational thought in society unless she determines that the march is not co-sponsored by or affiliated with any political organization and does not support or oppose any political party or candidate for election and her participation will not involve her in impermissible political activity or insert her unnecessarily into public controversy. In the period leading up to the event, the judge must monitor the march’s agenda and publicly reported affiliations and sponsorships.  A judge may not participate in a local political rally, march, or demonstration sponsored by grassroots organizations, even if she would refrain from speaking.  New York Advisory Opinion 2017-38.
  • A judge may not appear at a candlelight vigil for those affected by domestic violence. New York Advisory Opinion 2010-59.
  • A family court judge should not attend a tree planting and candlelight vigil on behalf of victims of crime in the judge’s county. New York Advisory Opinion 2004-91.
  • A judge may attend “A Day of Remembrance” ceremony to honor victims of domestic violence but should take care that his mannerisms, actions, or speech do not cast doubt on his impartiality and should not act as an advocate or in any way indicate a predisposition as to how he might rule in a domestic violence case. Washington Advisory Opinion 1996-16.

 

Intoxicated altercation

Based on agreements, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended 3 judges for injudicious conduct that culminated in a verbal altercation, a physical altercation, and gunfire outside a White Castle restaurant.  In the Matter of Adams, Jacobs, and Bell (Indiana Supreme Court November 12, 2019).

On the evening of April 30, 2019, Judge Andrew Adams, Judge Bradley Jacobs, and Judge Sabrina Bell traveled to Indianapolis to attend the Spring Judicial College the next day.  After checking into their hotel rooms, they spent the evening socializing with other judicial officers and drinking alcoholic beverages.

Around 12:30 a.m. on May 1, the judges and a magistrate met at a bar, where they continued to drink.  Around 3:00 a.m., the group walked to a strip club and tried to enter, but found that it was closed.

The group then walked to a White Castle.  While the magistrate went inside, the judges stood outside.  Around 3:17 a.m., Alfredo Vazquez and Brandon Kaiser drove past and shouted something out the window.  Judge Bell extended her middle finger to Vazquez and Kaiser.

Vazquez and Kaiser pulled into the White Castle parking lot and exited the vehicle.  There was a “heated verbal altercation . . . , with all participants yelling, using profanity, and making dismissive, mocking, or insolent gestures toward the other group.”  The judges did not “de-escalate the conflict” or avoid a confrontation by moving to another location in the parking lot,

After a verbal exchange between Judge Bell and Vazquez, there was a physical confrontation.  At one point, Judge Jacobs had Kaiser on the ground, raised his fist raised back, and said, “Okay, okay, we’re done, we’re done,” or “This is over.  Tell me this is over,” or words to that effect.  At another point, Judge Adams kicked Kaiser in the back.  Judge Bell made several attempts to stop the fighting, including seeking help by pounding on the door of the White Castle.  The confrontation ended when Kaiser pulled out a gun, shot Judge Adams once in the abdomen and shot Judge Jacobs twice in the chest.  Judge Bell immediately called 911.

Judge Adams and Judge Jacobs were transported to local hospitals.  Judge Adams had 2 emergency surgeries, including a colon re-sectioning.  Judge Jacobs had 2 emergency surgeries and was hospitalized for 14 days.

Upon admission to the hospital, Judge Adams’s serum blood alcohol level was 0.213 (or approximately 0.157 using whole blood), and Judge Jacobs’s was 0.177 (or approximately 0.13 using whole blood).  Judge Bell’s blood alcohol level was not tested, but she was intoxicated enough that she does not remember the incident.

In her statements at the police station, Judge Bell said that she does not remember what she said to Vazquez or Kaiser or what started the physical altercations.  After being informed that police had video of the incident, Judge Bell remarked that

  • “I’m afraid that I said something to them first, I don’t know.”
  • “[W]e’re all very good friends and they’re very protective of me. And I don’t know, and I’m afraid that I said something to those two strange men at first, and then they said something back to me.  And then I said something and then [Judge Adams and Judge Jacobs] went to defend me.”
  • “I’m not denying that I said something or egged it on … because I drink … I mean I fully acknowledge that I drink and get mouthy, and I’m fiery and I’m feisty, but if I would have ever thought for a second that they were gonna fight or that that guy had a gun on him, I would never, never …”

A grand jury indicted Judge Adams on 7 counts of battery and disorderly conduct.  The grand jury also investigated Judge Jacobs, but no criminal charges were filed against him.  The Court suspended Judge Adams from the bench.  On September 9, Judge Adams pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery resulting in bodily injury.  All other charges were dismissed, and Judge Adams was sentenced to 365 days in jail, with 363 days suspended.

The Court held that the judges’ “actions were not merely embarrassing on a personal level; they discredited the entire Indiana judiciary.”  The Court concluded:

While in town to attend a statewide educational conference for judicial officers, 10 hours before the program convened, Respondents walked the streets of downtown Indianapolis in a heavily intoxicated state.  When Judge Bell extended her middle finger to a passing vehicle, neither Judge Adams nor Judge Jacobs discouraged the provocation or removed themselves from the situation.  Instead, all three Respondents joined in a profane verbal altercation that quickly turned into physical violence and ended in gunfire, and in doing so, gravely undermined public trust in the dignity and decency of Indiana’s judiciary.

The Court suspended Judge Adams for 60 days without pay and Judge Jacobs and Judge Bell for 30 days without pay.

Deteriorating relationship

Accepting her resignation, the Colorado Supreme Court publicly censured a former court of appeals judge for (1) disclosing to an intimate, non-spousal partner the vote of a court of appeals division on a case prior to the issuance of the decision and (2) using inappropriate racial epithets in communications with her intimate partner.  In the Matter of Booras (Colorado Supreme Court March 11, 2019).  In March 2018, the Court had granted the request of the Commission on Judicial Discipline to suspend the judge with pay pending the disciplinary proceedings.  The judge resigned after the Commission recommended her removal.

In 2007, the judge began a 10-year relationship with a man whom she met online (“J.S.”).  J.S. told the judge that he was divorced and living in Denver, although the judge later learned that he was married and living in California.  They did not see each other frequently, but they communicated often, and the judge described their relationship as “intimate” and believed it would lead to marriage.

By early 2017, however, “the relationship was deteriorating, and Judge Booras had good reason to distrust J.S.”

On February 21, 2017, the judge and other judges in a division of the court of appeals heard oral argument in a case about the extent to which a state commission was required to consider public health and the environment in deciding whether to grant permits for oil and gas development.

The next morning, the judge sent an e-mail to J.S. that said:

We had an oral argument yesterday re: fracking ban where there was standing room only and a hundred people in our overflow video room.  The little Mexican is going to write in favor of the Plaintiffs and it looks like I am dissenting in favor of the Oil and Gas Commission.  You and Sid [a colleague of J.S.] will be so disappointed.

“The little Mexican” was a reference to one of Judge Booras’s colleagues, “a Latina who would ultimately write the opinion for the majority in that case.”  Judge Booras wrote the dissent.

At some point in 2018, J.S.’s wife contacted the judge, and the judge told her about the affair. Shortly thereafter, J.S. provided The Denver Post, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, the governor, the Commission on Judicial Discipline, and counsel for the plaintiffs in the case several communications from the judge.

The Court found that the judge had disclosed confidential information — the court’s vote in the case — to a third party.  The Court also found that the judge “had used an inappropriate racial epithet in communicating with J.S.,” noting that it was not the first time as she had referred to her ex-husband’s new wife, a woman of Navajo descent, as “the squaw” in an e-mail to J.S a year earlier.

The Court held that the judge’s “use of an inappropriate racial epithet directed at one of her colleagues” and her disclosure of confidential information “obviously impaired harmony and trust among her co-workers . . . .”   The Court emphasized that the judge’s “relationship with the colleague at whom her ‘little Mexican’ comment was directed” was particularly affected, noting that the other judge had been “justifiably shocked and deeply hurt by Judge Booras’s comments” and that a close working relationships with other judges is “integral to a collaborative decision-making body” like the court of appeals.  The Court also explained that “knowledge of Judge Booras’s racially inappropriate comments could understandably have caused concern among parties of diverse backgrounds, and particularly those of Latino and Native American ancestry, who inevitably would have appeared before Judge Booras were she to have returned to the court of appeals.  The judicial system cannot function properly if public confidence in a court is eroded in this way.”

The judge argued that “a judge’s communications with an intimate partner should be given First Amendment protection unless the speech ‘violates a specific narrowly-tailored rule of judicial conduct or falls within an ordinary exception to the First Amendment.’”  Rejecting that argument, the Court held that “inappropriate racial epithets and derogatory remarks are not matters of legitimate public concern warranting First Amendment protection.”  The Court also concluded that any First Amendment interests “are outweighed by the state’s countervailing interests.”

 

Marijuana and judicial ethics

According to governing.com, 31 states and D.C. have legalized marijuana to some degree, with Alaska, California, Colorado, D.C., Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington having the most expansive laws for recreational use.  Although that certainly changes the criminal caseloads of judges in those states, it makes no difference in their personal conduct, as a recent judicial ethics opinion from Alaska advises.

The advisory opinion concludes that:  “As long as federal law criminalizes marijuana use, Alaska judges who choose to use marijuana violate the Alaska Code of Judicial Conduct.”  Alaska Advisory Opinion 2018-1.  The opinion relies on the provision in Canon 2A of the Alaska code that states that, “[i]n all activities, a judge shall exhibit respect for the rule of law, comply with the law, and avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, and act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”  The opinion notes that the “requirement that a judge shall comply with the law includes federal law as well as state law and local laws.”

The opinion states that Alaska law on marijuana use is unique because it is based on a 1975 decision by the Alaska Supreme Court that the right to privacy in the state constitution protects the personal use of marijuana in the home.  See Ravin v. State, 537 P.2d 494 (Alaska 1975).  However, the opinion emphasizes that judges’ personal rights are limited by the code, for example, with respect to “speech, financial endeavors, and political activity to preserve their impartiality and ability to hear cases.”

Further, the opinion explains:

Marijuana use violates federal law and its use by a judge would reflect a lack of respect for the law by showing a selective attitude towards the law suggesting that some are appropriate to follow but others are not.  Public use of marijuana by a judge would further create an appearance of impropriety.

The opinion also states that judges are restricted “even in their personal use in the home” as a “reasonable and necessary” measure to preserve public confidence in the judiciary, noting that, “[o]ne never knows when an iPhone is out and ready to take a picture of a momentary indiscretion.”

Colorado is the only other state that has a judicial ethics advisory opinion on the subject, issued in 2014 in response to a judge who asked “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.  Colorado Advisory Opinion 2014-1.

In Rule 1.1(B), the Colorado code states that “[c]onduct by a judge that violates a criminal law may . . . constitute a violation of the requirement that a judge must comply with the law” — “unless the violation is minor,” an exception unique to Colorado.  The advisory committee notes that the Committee to Consider Revisions to the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct had been concerned that the requirement that a judge comply with the law was “vague and confusing” and “could subject judges to discipline for what typically are regarded as minor infractions, such as receiving a parking ticket or permitting the judge’s dog to run at large.”  Thus, the “minor” violation language was added in 2010.

However, the advisory committee stated that the exemption only applied to “violations of relatively insignificant traffic offenses and local ordinances, not state or federal drug laws.”  The committee recognized that, under federal law, simple possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor or even an infraction punishable only by a civil penalty under some circumstances.  Nevertheless, it concluded that, “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 . . . .”

The committee emphasized that it is only authorized to provide an opinion on whether “intended, future conduct” complies with the code of judicial conduct, not on whether such conduct is censurable and, therefore, it was not opining on whether a judge who uses marijuana consistent with Colorado law should be disciplined.