Judges and magisterial district judges can be disciplined for illegal conduct that affects the integrity of the office, regardless of whether the conduct occurred within the judicial decision-making process, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The court’s unanimous decision in In re Carney overruled the court’s holding in its 2000 opinion in In re Cicchetti, which found that alleged sexual misconduct of a court of common pleas judge did not violate Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2A because the statute was limited to conduct implicating the judicial decision-making process.

The decision also overruled the 2006 published per curium order In re Harrington, which, citing Cicchetti, ruled that a magisterial district judge who allegedly parked at expired meters and placed parking tickets for other people on her windshield did not violate Magisterial District Judge Rule 2A. The statute is nearly identical to Canon 2A.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said the decision incorrectly limited the plain language of the provisions by narrowing the conduct to actions involved in the decision-making process.

“The court never attempted to explain why the requirement that judicial officers conduct themselves in a manner that preserves judicial integrity and independence was so limited, and we believe there is merit to the [Judicial Conduct] Board’s position that the plain language of the provision is not so limiting,” Castille said. “Canon 1 simply states that judicial officers must observe ‘high standards of conduct’ in order to preserve judicial integrity and independence. It does not limit the phrase by requiring the conduct occur within the judicial decision-making sphere; and such a limitation would have been easy to express affirmatively.”

The underlying case involved Magisterial District Judge Thomas Carney, who, in January 2009, was involved in an alleged road rage incident where he flashed his middle finger at two college students in a nearby vehicle after they failed to yield as he attempted to pass. After the students began yelling obscenities at him, the judge brandished a Walther PPK 38 9mm handgun out of his car window.

Carney was subsequently charged with terroristic threats, simple assault, disorderly conduct and reckless endangering of another person, but his charges were dismissed by a Mercer County MDJ before the charges were reinstated. Carney pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses.

The Judicial Conduct Board filed a complaint against Carney, alleging that he violated MDJ Rule 2A and Article Five, Section 18(d)(1) of the Pennsylvania Constitution for brandishing the gun.

However, the Court of Judicial Discipline determined that the gun-waving incident did not meet the threshold under the constitution for behavior “so extreme” as to bring the judicial office into disrepute. The CJD also determined that the actions did not violate the MDJ rules because the behavior did not implicate the judicial decision-making process.

Regarding the reasonableness of the action, the CJD noted that Carney legally possessed the gun, he did not threaten the students, he took care not to point the gun at the students or their vehicle, he only displayed the gun for two to three seconds and everyone “proceeded peacefully” back to their destinations. The CJD also noted that there was concern the event could have escalated further, and Carney said he felt that showing the gun would de-escalate the situation.

The CJD also cited both Cicchetti and Harrington to hold that the conduct did not violate the MDJ rules because the conduct did not implicate the decision-making process.

On appeal, the CJD asked the court to uphold the previous ruling, interpreting Rule 2A to require a connection between the criminal conduct and the judicial decision-making process. The CJD also argued that the purpose of Rule 2A is only to make clear that the MDJs will be held to a higher standard for conduct that affects their ability to dispense justice.

Castille, however, found that any interpretation of the statutes must be consonant with the overarching purpose of Canon 1 and Rule 1, which is to preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

He also noted that both Canon 2A and Rule 2A require judges and MDJs to “respect and comply with the law,” and argued that nothing in the language suggests that the conduct is limited to decision-making activities.

“By its plain meaning construction of Rule 2A is not only consonant with the rules of statutory construction and common sense, but to read it differently would also be contrary to MDJ Rule 1′s stated purpose of upholding the integrity of the judiciary,” he said. “A judicial office represents a public trust, and the conduct of a judicial officer may bear upon the independence and integrity of the judiciary, regardless of whether the conduct implicates the decision-making process.”

Despite the court’s decision to overturn Cicchetti and Harrington, Castille noted that the new precedent will not be administered retroactively against Carney, as Cicchetti and Harrington were governing when Carney pleaded to the criminal charges.

The charge of violating the constitution was remanded for further proceedings.

JCB Chief Counsel Robert A. Graci did not respond to calls for comment.

Attorney David G. Ridge of Ridge and McLaughlin, who represented Carney, said that with the five-year anniversary of the underlying incident coming up in January, he hopes to have the case resolved soon with the lightest discipline.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.

(Copies of the 31-page opinion in In re Carney, PICS No. 13-3111, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •