May 13, 2020
Illinois is the next state where marijuana is about to become legal, well for most. Chicago’s Housing Authority has sent out notices reminding its residents that marijuana remains federally illegal and those partaking in, or possessing, marijuana in public housing could be evicted. The same holds true for public housing residents across the country as well as another group that might surprise you: state court judges.
With over thirty states now legalizing marijuana, judges have turned to their ethics committees for clarification on the ethics surrounding marijuana. In the Summer 2019 Issue of the National Center for State Courts’ Judicial Conduct Reporter, Judicial Ethics expert Cynthia Gray discusses the ethics of judges in relation to marijuana, the advisory opinions that had addressed the issue, and some of the sanctions that have been handed down.
In Colorado, the judicial ethics committee concluded the judicial code of conduct’s rule that a judge not violate the law extends to federal laws. Furthermore, although Colorado’s judicial code states minor infractions are not a violation of judicial ethics, pot use, while not a serious use under federal law, is not a minor offense because it is much more serious than the offenses that prompted the exemption such as a parking ticket or loose dog.
The Alaska judicial ethics committee reasoned a judge who violated the federal law by using marijuana would convey the message that it is ok to follow some laws and not others and would convey an image of impropriety. As such, they concluded the ban on judicial use of pot was necessary to preserve public confidence in the judiciary.
Maryland and California also examined the issue. Once again, the fact that marijuana is federally illegal factored heavily in the ethics committees’ reasoning. California’s opinion also requires the judge stay abreast of whether any financial or property interest of the judge is involved with the business of marijuana. So, for example, a judge who owns rental property has an ethical obligation to make sure that property is not being used as a pot dispensary. New York’s rules on pot extend beyond the state’s borders as the state’s judicial advisory committee banned judges from participating in a marijuana-based business located in another state.
As the legal marijuana industry grows judicial ethics committees across the country will continue to address the ethical concerns surrounding the issue. To keep abreast of ethical issues for the judiciary follow the NCSC Judicial Ethics Blog , visit the Center for Judicial Ethics, or sign up for the newsletter.
For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164