Gun-waving judge in road-rage incident may be sanctioned, court says

A judge who waved his gun out the window of his car during a dispute with another driver may be sanctioned for the conduct, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled.

The court sent the case back to the Court of Judicial Discipline to determine the appropriate sanction for the judge, Erie 3rd Ward District Judge Tom Carney, according to the Erie Times-News and a press release available here. The court found that Carney could be sanctioned under the Pennsylvania Constitution, which allows judges to be disciplined or removed from office for conduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute.

“People who brandish guns during road rage incidents should properly expect themselves to be viewed as exhibiting disreputable conduct,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in its unanimous Oct. 30 opinion (PDF). The ruling reverses part of a May 2011 decision by the Court of Judicial Discipline.

According to findings by the Court of Judicial Discipline, the incident occurred when Carney was driving home on Interstate 79 after attending a Pittsburgh Steelers game in January 2009. He drove up behind another vehicle in the left lane and flashed his lights to indicate he wanted to pass. When the vehicle, driven by a college student, didn’t move, Carney moved to the right-hand lane to pass and flipped the bird. This spurred the driver of the other vehicle to move behind Carney’s vehicle, flick his high beams, then drive alongside Carney, raise his middle finger and yell obscenities.

Concerned about the escalation of the incident, Carney responded by holding his gun out the window. He had a permit to carry the gun. He later pleaded guilty to two summary offenses of disorderly conduct in connection with the incident and paid a fine.

Carney “escalated the interaction,” the state supreme court said, when he made an obscene gesture. “The ensuing back-and-forth between the two drivers—as common and dangerous as it is childish—played out predictably enough—until [Carney] introduced the gun.” His conduct was more extreme than the Court of Judicial Discipline appreciated, the court said.

The court said the gun-waving conduct violated not only the state constitution, but also a judicial ethics rule that requires judges to conduct themselves in a way that promotes public confidence in the judiciary. Previous court rulings on the ethics rule had required the conduct at issue to be related to judicial decision-making. The court overruled that precedent, but said its new interpretation of the ethics rule could not be applied retroactively to Carney.

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