How would you feel if you were sentenced to death by a judge who was under the influence of marijuana?  I wouldn’t feel too good about it, and fortunately, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal overturned the judge’s pronouncement by a split two to one decision.


This case stemmed out of a matter in Phoenix in 1982, and an evidentiary hearing has been ordered to determine whether or not the judge in question, Judge Marquardt was under the influence of marijuana when considering whether or not to sentence defendant Warren W. Summerlin to die.  If it is determined that he was under the influence of marijuana, then the death sentence is to be set aside.  The Court of Appeal indicated that “one’s legal conscience simply recoils at the shocking thought that the judge presiding over a criminal trial and making life-or-death sentencing decisions was under the influence or materially impaired by the use of an illegal mind-altering substance.”  In 1991, Judge Marquardt resigned from the bench as part of a plea bargain, as he pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana.  The Judge had previously been suspended due to an earlier marijuana-related conviction, and acknowledged that he was addicted to marijuana. 


This case got even more off the beaten path when it was learned that Mr. Summerlin’s public defender was involved in a romantic relationship with Mr. Summerlin’s prosecutor at the time of this case.  In fact, the prosecutor and the public defender had worked out a resolution for Mr. Summerlin in which he would serve fourteen years in prison; however, Mr. Summerlin rejected this plea resolution.


I indicated earlier that the ruling in this case was two to one.  The dissenting judge, Judge Alex Kozinski indicated a strong concern that it is now open season on the private lives of judges.  He further indicated his concern for the anticipated major upheaval in the administration of criminal cases.  He noted that in the decade of the nineties, eleven State Judges in California were disciplined for substance abuse. 


I fail to see the merit in Mr. Kozinski’s position.  Let’s take a little more time and review and decide whether or not the eleven judges were impaired when making significant decisions with respect to their cases.  It seems as if Judge Kozinski is more interested in a speedy resolution of matters as opposed to an appropriate resolution of cases.  If there are people in custody right now who are there because their judge was not mentally competent, let’s review these cases, and if new trials are called for, then so be it.  I am quite disappointed that a judge feels that it is more important to put cases away nicely and neatly rather than being willing to get one’s hands dirty and do the work. 


I am glad that the Summerlin hearing will take place, and while it may be difficult to go back to 1982 and determine a judge’s state of mind or consciousness on a particular weekend, it ought to be done as well as it possibly can, as an individual’s life is at stake.