The Commission has publicly disciplined numerous judges over the years for having committed various alcohol-related driving offenses and, on occasion, discharging or attempting to discharge judicial duties while under the influence of alcohol. Apart from the obvious – that drinking to excess and then operating a car puts the driver and everyone in the vicinity at great risk of harm – when the wrongdoer is a judge, public confidence in the courts, where intoxication-related offenses are adjudicated, is seriously compromised.
The Commission’s docket seems always to have one or more active inquiries into complaints of public alcohol-fueled misconduct by judges, and in recent years, numerous disciplinary determinations have been rendered in such matters, particularly as to instances in which judges were arrested and convicted for driving under the influence.
Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol
The Rules Governing Judicial Conduct require a judge to respect and comply with the law, and to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and upholds the dignity of judicial office. Those rules are violated whenever a judge is convicted of an alcohol-fueled offense, and the offending judge will surely be disciplined.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2018 there were 10,511 fatalities in motor vehicle traffic crashes nationwide in which alcohol was involved. Of those, 7,051 involved at least one driver with a blood alcohol concentration of .15% or higher, which is nearly twice the threshold of .08% for a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) conviction in New York, and three times higher than the .05% threshold for Driving While Ability Impaired by alcohol (DWAI).
According to the New York State 2018 Highway Safety Annual Report, alcohol-impaired driving causes more than 300 fatalities and more than 5,000 injuries in New York State each year.
In view of the seriousness of driving under the influence of alcohol, judicial disciplinary commissions throughout the country, like society as a whole, have become increasing intolerant of it while also recognizing that alcoholism is a disease. Throughout most of the United States, public reprimand or its equivalent – the mildest public discipline available – is the standard disciplinary punishment for a judge’s first alcohol-related driving offense where there are no aggravating circumstances. In other words, a judge found guilty of DWI or DWAI in New York should expect at least a public admonition. Any one of a number of aggravating circumstances – such as the judge asserting his/her judicial title to avoid arrest, causing an accident, obstructing the police as they carry out their duties or committing repeated alcohol-related offenses – would likely elevate the level of discipline to censure. It is no excuse that the judge may have been too drunk to control what he or she was saying. Where the aggravating circumstances are individually or collectively egregious, removal from office would likely result. At the same time, as noted below under the subheading “Seeking Treatment for an Alcohol Problem,” the Commission will consider a judge’s sincere effort at confronting and treating an alcohol problem in determining the appropriate sanction.
In Matter of Astacio, 32 NY3d 131 (2018), a city court judge was removed from office for a series of events that began with her arrest and conviction of DWI and included her assertion of judicial office during the arrest and violations of court-ordered conditions of her sentence.
In Matter of Quinn, 54 NY2d 386 (1981), the Commission determined to remove from office a Supreme Court Justice who had two alcohol-related convictions and other alcohol- related incidents, was uncooperative, belligerent and abusive to the arresting officers and repeatedly referred to his judicial position. On review, the Court of Appeals reduced the removal to censure in view of the fact that the judge had retired between issuance of the Commission determination and adjudication of the review by the Court.
Other cases in which the Commission censured a judge for an alcohol-related driving offense include Matter of Landicino, 2016 NYSCJC Annual Report 129, a judge was censured for DWI and repeatedly asserting his judicial office during the arrest. In Matter of Newman, 2014 NYSCJC Annual Report 164, a judge was censured for DWAI, in the course of which he caused a minor accident and, on arrival of the police, behaved in an unruly, self-destructive and suicidal manner, inter alia threatening to take the arresting officer’s gun. In Matter of Apple, 2013 NYSCJC Annual Report 95, a judge was censured for DWI and in the process causing a minor accident. The same judge thereafter left office after another DWI episode a short time later. In Matter of Maney, 2011 NYSCJC Annual Report 106, a judge was censured for DWAI and in the process making an illegal U-turn to avoid a sobriety checkpoint and repeatedly invoking his judicial office while asking for special “consideration” and “professional courtesy” from the police. In Matter of Martineck, 2011 NYSCJC Annual Report 116, a judge was censured for DWI and in the process driving erratically and hitting a mile marker post. In Matter of Burke, 2010 NYSCJC Annual Report 110, a judge was censured inter alia for DWAI and causing a minor accident. In Matter of Stelling, 2003 NYSCJC Annual Report 165, a judge was censured for two alcohol-related convictions. In Matter of Barr, 1981 NYSCJC Annual Report 139, a judge was censured for two alcohol-related convictions, asserting his judicial office with police officers and being abusive and uncooperative during his arrests, after which he made “a sincere effort to rehabilitate himself.”
In January 2020, shortly after the reporting period covered in this Annual Report, two other judges in unrelated incidents were censured after pleading guilty to DWAI. In both cases, the judges had accidents causing property damage. One invoked his judicial office during arrest, and the other was belligerent and uncooperative with the police. Matter of Miranda and Matter of Petucci are available on the Commission’s website.
Alcohol-Influenced Behavior on the Bench
As serious as it is for a judge to commit an alcohol-related driving offense, it can be even more troubling when a judge attempts to exercise the powers of judicial office while under the influence of alcohol. Litigants and the public can have little faith in the decisions and judgments of a judge who appears in court while under the influence of alcohol.
In Matter of Aldrich, 58 NY2d 279 (1983), a judge was removed from office for presiding over two sessions of court while under the influence of alcohol and, in the process, uttering racist, vulgar and otherwise grossly offensive and inappropriate comments and at one point brandishing a knife and threatening a security guard with it while uttering racial slurs.
In Matter of Wangler, 1985 NYSCJC Annual Report 241, a judge was removed inter alia for being intoxicated and belligerent in court and at a meeting with court auditors. In Matter of Giles, 1998 NYSCJC Annual Report 127, a judge was censured for twice presiding over off-hours arraignments while under the influence of alcohol. In Matter of Bradigan, 1996 NYSCJC Annual Report 71, a judge was censured inter alia for twice presiding while under the influence of alcohol. In Matter of Purple, 1998 NYSCJC Annual Report 149, a judge was censured for DWI and for presiding under the influence of alcohol on one occasion. In Matter of Gilpatric, 2006 NYSCJC Annual Report 160, a judge was censured for appearing in court as an attorney while under the influence of alcohol and, later that day, taking the bench while under the influence of alcohol, although court staff and a co-judge intervened and the judge left for the day without adjudicating any matters.
Fortunately, alcohol-related transgressions on the bench are rare. However, court staff, attorneys and fellow judges should be alert to the signs that it is indeed affecting a colleague in the performance of judicial duties and, where appropriate as in Gilpatric, be prepared to intervene and notify both the appropriate court administrators and the Commission.
Seeking Treatment for an Alcohol Problem
In several cases cited above, such as Landicino, Newman and Gilpatric, the judges in question sought assistance for their alcohol problems after being arrested for DWI or diverted from taking the bench while intoxicated. In appropriate situations, the Commission Administrator has given the judge time to complete such a program before submitting a recommendation to the Commission as to disposition of the complaint. The successful completion of such a program would not obviate public discipline, but depending on the severity of the alcohol-fueled misbehavior, it could mitigate the degree of discipline imposed.
Unfortunately, it too often takes an arrest or other serious public event for a judge to seek treatment for alcoholism or alcohol-fueled behavior. Yet there are programs available to assist those who seek help even before the problem manifests itself on the bench or behind the wheel of an automobile. For example, the New York State Bar Association has a Judicial Assistance Program, a Lawyer Assistance Program and a Judicial Wellness Committee that are available to provide assistance to those willing to avail themselves of the opportunity. The New York City Bar Association has a Lawyer Assistance Program. County bar associations throughout the state also offer assistance programs. These various programs offer such services as evaluation and assessment, counseling, referrals and mentoring. Many provide services not only to the alcoholic but to members of his/her family. There are also any number of private and/or non-profit assistance programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon/Alateen that are available to help.
Although the Commission does not endorse one such program over others, we do encourage all who need assistance to take advantage of the opportunities that exist, before the effects of alcoholism exhibit themselves in behavior that must be addressed in a disciplinary setting.
The Commission also encourages the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to devote sufficient resources to encourage judges and court employees to come forward and seek treatment, before they violate the law, get caught, become a public embarrassment or worse, cause serious injury to themselves or others – and face disciplinary consequences before the Commission. Training programs for new judges, and continuing education programs for veteran judges, should routinely include medical and treatment professionals presenting programs on alcohol and drug abuse-prevention for all, and facilitating treatment for those who need it. OCA should consider establishing a permanent full-time office, sufficiently staffed to coordinate presentations, give confidential advice, make referrals and otherwise provide prevention and treatment related assistance to the thousands of professionals who populate the far-flung state court system.
From the 2020 Annual Report, pages 20-23.