A local judge from northwestern Pennsylvania has been reprimanded by a
state disciplinary court for waving a handgun at another motorist during a traffic incident five years ago, the move representing a reversal from an earlier ruling by the same body.
Thomas Carney, a magisterial district judge from Erie County, was reprimanded – the lowest form of judicial punishment – for his actions arising during a road rage incident back in 2009.
In 2011, the Court of Judicial Discipline acquitted Carney of any wrongdoing, noting that the judge merely displayed the weapon in “an effort to defuse the situation.”
The matter was appealed, however, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, ruling that Carney’s behavior brought the judicial office into disrepute, reversed the CJD’s initial determination and sent the matter back to the disciplinary panel for further analysis.
This time around, the disciplinary court determined that a written reprimand was in order.
The CJD, acting under orders from the high court to sanction the local magistrate, unanimously approved the penalty following an hour-long hearing recently, according to an Associated Press report.
The AP reported that Judge Charles Clement, a magisterial district judge from Camp Hill, Pa. who sits on the CJD, said he would write up the official reprimand within two weeks.
Carney was quoted in the AP report as saying that he was relieved by the disciplinary court’s decision only to reprimand him, and that he was glad the matter, which began five years ago, was now behind him.
The story further noted that Carney’s attorney, David Ridge, pointed out that his client has a good reputation in the community, something highlighted by the fact that the judge ran unopposed for a second six-year term back in 2011, despite the fact that the gun controversy had been made public at the time.
The CJD has the power to suspend and even remove judges, who are elected in Pennsylvania, from office.
The incident occurred in 2009 when Carney displayed a handgun outside of his vehicle’s window after exchanging obscene gestures with another motorist while the two were traveling along Interstate 79, court records show.
Carney, who had a license to carry a firearm, was reportedly driving back to his home in Erie after attending a Pittsburgh Steelers game when the incident took place.
The CJD originally ruled that Carney was justified in displaying the weapon, since he believed it to be necessary to defuse the situation with the college students in the other vehicle, but the Supreme Court didn’t buy that argument, saying that in assessing the severity of Carney’s conduct, it could not agree with the CJD’s conclusion that Carney did not threaten the occupants of the other vehicle with the gun.
“By [Carney’s] own account, he deliberately retrieved and brandished the gun, with the specific intention of making the young men ‘back off,’” the high court had written in its decision this past Oct. 30. “Additionally, in reaching its legal conclusion, the CJD failed to account for the fact that it was [Carney] who initiated the entire incident by passing [the other vehicle] while making an obscene gesture. There is no indication why [Carney] did not simply slow down and let the other car pass instead of choosing to retrieve and brandish a gun as a way to ‘de-escalate’ the situation.”
The high court had also written that the CJD’s conclusion that Carney’s conduct in displaying the gun to get the other driver to “back off” was objectively reasonable, and thus not extreme, “is similarly problematic.
“In our view, the CJD’s conclusion that [Carney’s] conduct was neither threatening nor unreasonable was erroneous,” the Supreme Court wrote back in October. “[Carney’s] subjective assessment of the incident has little weight when considering the ultimate question of whether the public’s perception of the judiciary as a whole is affected by [Carney’s] initiation, continued participation in, and escalation of this incident involving the brandishing of gun during a high speed dispute on the highway.”
The high court wrote that the Judicial Conduct Board’s view that this sort of conduct invites the view that judges appear to believe that they are above the law is “especially apt here.
“People who brandish guns during road rage incidents should properly expect themselves to be viewed as exhibiting disreputable conduct,” the high court wrote.
The justices then reversed the part of the CJD’s ruling that had determined Carney’s conduct didn’t bring the judicial office into disrepute.
Court records and media reports show that shortly after the incident in 2009, Carney pleaded guilty to two counts of misconduct and paid a $514 fine after state troopers pulled him over on Interstate 79 after the incident was called in.
Lynn Marks, executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said that while the CJD has the authority to issue a punishment as it sees fit, she is disappointed at what she called a “weak sanction” in Carney’s case.
“Pennsylvanians deserve to have judges held to the highest standards of ethics and conduct,” Marks wrote in an emailed message. “Judge Carney clearly failed to live up to those standards and the CJD sanctioned him with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
“The fact that Judge Carney’s misconduct occurred outside of the courtroom doesn’t diminish the detrimental effect that his behavior has on the public’s confidence in the judiciary.”