The Ohio Public Defender’s office seems unsympathetic to the plight of alcoholism, at least when the sufferer being shamed is Scioto County Common Pleas Court Judge William T. Marshall.
More than 2,700 cases overseen by a former common pleas judge could be reexamined after allegations that the judge came to work drunk and was possibly involved in a local sex trafficking ring in Portsmouth.
One would expect that such conduct would be recognized by someone in his courtroom and addressed by a supervising judge. But then, it’s not entirely unsurprising that no one noticed, as alcoholics can be quite adept at hiding their condition, and judges tend to be given wide latitude to be “odd” without getting taken to the woodshed for impropriety. Or, of course, there is the possibility that Judge Marshall might not have presided drunk and that’s just how he rolls.
“If you’re a severe alcoholic, you’re going to work under the influence … and that means you are ruling on people’s cases,” Young said. “It also makes you open to manipulation to those who know and perhaps your cases aren’t being handled fairly because of the fear of being outed.”
“A fair justice system relies on so many things, but nothing more important than a fair arbitrator – the judge.”
Is the problem with an alcoholic judge that he exposes himself to extortion by someone who threatens to reveal his condition? It’s not that he’s ruling while drunk, making decisions while his mind is impaired by liquor? But then, if there’s nothing more important than “a fair arbitrator,” what’s drunk got to do with it? There is nothing about being drunk that makes one inherently unfair, and nothing about being sober that makes one fair for that matter.
There is, of course, a very serious problem here, though the arguments against now-retired (and according to his family, incompetent) Judge Marshall fail to face it squarely. Litigants, lawyers and, indeed, the public are entitled to a judge who is competent to perform his function.
Whether his rulings are wise or dumb, fair or biased, is a separate question from whether he sits wobbly on the bench. It is sufficient to presume that a drunken judge is an impaired judge, even if we’re desperately trying to rid alcoholism of societal stigma and see it as just another disease, like cancer or tertiary syphilis.
On the one hand, if a judge suffering from alcoholism fears public humiliation, and loss of his bench, if he seeks help, what are the chances he will admit to his infirmity and act to address it? On the other hand, if the drunk judge conceals his alcoholism, can we trust his rulings aren’t influenced by Ketel One?
This has become a hot topic in law, there being a movement to de-stigmatize problems ranging from depression to drug addiction. And as my pal Brian Cuban has made clear, the need to face up to, to deal with, these problems is paramount to lawyers, both as to their exercise of their profession and as to their survival as human beings.
But this is a policy choice, that the need to help the lawyer is paramount to the need to protect the client from the troubled lawyer. When it comes to a judge, who doesn’t wear a black robe because it’s slimming, but because there is a societal purpose to be fulfilled and he just happens to be the person whose job it is to fulfill it, can we afford to be as tolerant?
The Ohio Public Defender says “no,” that the impact of drunken decisions on defendants is a problem of greater concern. How anyone plans to vet good rulings from bad by a drunken judge remains a mystery, as the nature of judicial decisions tends not to fall so easily into distinguishable categories.
Of course, the best way to avoid the unseemliness of reviewing 2707 cases is to keep alcoholic judges off the bench in the first place. But would that be acceptable given our efforts to end the stigma of alcoholism and drug abuse?