Thursday, September 05, 2013

Drug cases against jurists provide wake-up call for bench and bar

Friday the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin reported that all of the federal judges in the Southern District of Illinois had recused themselves from the forthcoming weapons and heroin possession trial of former Circuit Court Judge Michael N. Cook.

It was at then-Judge Cook's Pike County hunting lodge earlier this year where newly sworn-in Associate Judge Joseph D. Christ was found dead. Authorities later determined that Judge Christ had died of a drug overdose.

Around the time of Cook's arrest St. Louis TV station KSDK reported that Judge Cook had handled 90% of the drug cases in St. Clair County.

Former Utah Judge Virginia Ward and her
attorney in court on August 27.
Virginia Ward, a former judge in Salt Lake City, Utah, pled guilty on August 27 to picking up packages of Oxycodone to deliver to her dealer. She faces up to 15 years in prison.

Before her arrest, according to Marissa Lang's July 17 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, in 11 years as judge of the Salt Lake City justice court, Ward tried countless cases against defendants facing misdemeanor drug charges.

Lang's August 27 story for the Salt Lake Tribune, linked above, explains the particulars of Ward's downfall:
On March 30, the day she was arrested, Ward had received two packages containing 338 tablets of Oxycodone, the documents state.

She told agents that she had been taking the drug to treat her neck pain and also admitted that she had traded "controlled substances that she had received in order to obtain Oxycodone and other controlled substances," according to court documents.
It's possible to look at these stories from Utah and Downstate Illinois simply as examples of the corrupting influence of illicit drugs.

But I wonder if these sad stories don't illustrate a deeper, systemic problem, one not limited just to drugs and drug usage. I submit that, for a nation supposedly that lives by the rule of law, an awful lot of us seem to think that laws are things to pick and choose, things that too often apply only to the 'the other guy.'

You might think that lawyers and particularly judges would be especially likely to obey all laws, but lately I have begun to suspect that this is no longer the public perception. Thus, a little story I picked up earlier this year about a Michigan judge who fined himself when his cellphone went off in court got attention around the world. News, I was taught, is the unusual, the unexpected. Dog bites man is not generally news; man bites dog generally is. When a judge holding himself to the same standards as anyone else in his courtroom becomes news, that's a pretty good clue that the public no longer thinks judges are any more likely than anyone else to actually obey the law. Stories like those involving Judge Cook Downstate or Judge Ward in Utah can't possibly help.

Thus the wake-up call: Lawyers and judges have both a particular obligation to obey the laws and a unique opportunity to influence the development of laws. If laws (even laws with laudable purposes) are unworkable, incapable of uniform enforcement, or impractical (perhaps too harsh?) as framed, we can help our legislators repeal, revise, or amend those laws to cure those flaws and better implement the lofty purposes with which the laws were first enacted. I've got a little list; I'll bet most lawyers have one, too. It might be useful to see if we can have a civil, rational discussion about which laws may be unworkable, incapable of uniform enforcement or impractical and how we might go about revising them.

This will be taken up in future posts. Who knows? If we can have a polite, thoughtful discussion on the Internet we might start a whole new online trend. In the meantime, if you have suggestions or topics you'd like to see addressed in posts along these lines, send me an email or leave a comment below.

Related: Death of a Downstate judge, downfall of another

1 comment:

Eileen K. Carpenter said...

The thing that separates "addiction" from just needing a lot of medication for severe pain is that addicts put the drug ahead of everything else. They'll risk their jobs, their families, and their own lives, because getting the drug is that important to them. And when the drug causes problems in their lives, they will refuse to believe there isn't some other cause that deserves blame instead.

Every profession is going to have a certain percentage of people at risk of addiction. And it doesn't matter how dire the consequences would be if they got caught, because being in denial is part and parcel of being an addict.

If the laws don't take that into consideration, we'll keep spending a lot of money and effort punishing people who aren't deterred by the risk of punishment.