'Judge not, lest ye be judged...'
Since all citizens are not supposed to engage in "road rage" behavior while driving their cars, it might seem obvious that the prohibition also applies to judges.
But, remarkably, the state Court of Judicial Discipline found otherwise in the road rage case of a magisterial district judge from Erie County.
On Jan. 11, 2009, Magisterial District Judge Thomas Carney was driving on Interstate 79 in Mercer County, on his way home from a Pittsburgh Steelers game, when he came up behind a car carrying two Mercyhurst College freshmen. Judge Carney flashed his high beams at the car, but it did not leave the left lane. He passed on the right and made an obscene gesture. The car carrying the students then moved to the right lane and the driver flashed its high beams at the judge's car. He slowed down, and when the students entered the left lane to pass, he displayed a 9mm handgun out the window.
Carney pleaded guilty in November 2009 to two summary counts of disorderly conduct and paid a $541 fine. He subsequently was re-elected.
The Judicial Conduct Board, an arm of the state Supreme Court that investigates ethics complaints against judges, contended that Judge Carney's display of the handgun was an egregious act that brought his judicial office into disrepute.
Incredibly, the Court of Judicial Discipline dismissed the case, finding in part that the judge's childish conduct did not bring the office into disrepute because it did not implicate the judicial decision-making process. Under that logic, a judge could render a decision in a case, walk out the door and commit any crime and face criminal charges but no ethical charges, since the process by which he rendered judicial decisions was not implicated.
To its credit, a unanimous state Supreme Court disagreed on appeal, actually overturning one of its own precedents while doing so. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Ron Castille said that the disciplinary court's decision was contrary to the very purpose of the Canons of Judicial Conduct and to common sense.
"A judicial office represents the public trust," he wrote, "and the conduct of a judicial officer may bear upon the independence and integrity of the judiciary, regardless of whether the conduct implicates the decision-making process."
The decision is an important one at a time when the state judiciary has been adversely affected by the wayward actions of some judges, from the minor judiciary through the Supreme Court.