TROY JUDGE ADMONISHED FOR PISTOL PERMIT LETTER

Second time watchdog panel has reprimanded McGrath -- this time over campaign vow

CAROL DEMARE STAFF WRITER
Section: - - -,  Page: C3

Date: Saturday, May 18, 2013

State Supreme Court Justice Patrick McGrath of Troy should be admonished for sending a letter to pistol permit holders during his campaign promising he would not abandon them should he be elected to the higher court, a state judicial watchdog panel said Tuesday.


It was the second time in six years McGrath, a former Rensselaer County judge, has been disciplined for his conduct.


As a county judge McGrath signed more than 20,000 permits and permit amendments. During his fall 2008 campaign for Supreme Court, he stated that should he be elected to that office, he looked "forward to serving the pistol permit holders for another 14 years," the length of a Supreme Court term.


The state Commission on Judicial Conduct, in a determination dated Feb. 5, found that McGrath "made improper pledges or promises" to pistol permit holders and "misrepresented his jurisdiction over such permits." The commission ruled unanimously in recommending the sanction.


McGrath, 56, a Troy Democrat, defeated incumbent Appellate Division Associate Justice Anthony Carpinello, a highly regarded jurist, in the November 2008 election.


Using "Judge McGrath for Supreme Court" stationery, the judge sent letters in October of that year to about 7,000 people in Rensselaer County, addressing them as "Fellow Pistol Permit Holder."


He said as a county judge for the past 14 years -- he was in his second term in that office -- he had been "responsible for all pistol permits in Rensselaer County. My pistol permit is very important to me as I know yours is to you," the judge wrote.


He continued, saying as a Supreme Court justice, "I will still be responsible for all pistol permits in Rensselaer County." He ended the letter asking for the person's vote.


The commission, referring to case law, said "even an implied pledge or promise may violate ... ethical standards."


It said that viewed in its entirety, the letter "conveyed bias and the appearance of bias in favor of pistol permit holders and implied that as a judge he would favorably consider their interests."


"A judge's role is to serve the public as a whole, not a specific constituency," the commission said.


Also, the panel said, McGrath misstated the law by suggesting he would still be responsible for all pistol permits in the county.


"Any judge or justice of a court of record in the county may issue a pistol permit," the panel said. By representing that he had "exclusive jurisdiction over such permits not only was legally incorrect, but buttressed the biased message conveyed in his letter," the panel said.


In 2004, McGrath was admonished for publicly commenting on the Christine Wilhelm murder trial on national television. At the time, he was a candidate for re-election to Rensselaer County Court.


In view of that discipline McGrath "should have been especially sensitive to the ethical rules," the commission said.


An admonishment is the lowest form of public reprimand a judge can receive from the commission. Within the next 30 days, McGrath can ask Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman for a review of the determination by the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. If he chooses not to make the request, the commission's recommendation of admonishment takes effect.


McGrath could not be reached for comment Tuesday.


In a 2008 Times Union story, Carpinello, McGrath's opponent, took issue with the pistol permit letter. But McGrath said he was comfortable with it.


"I received a lot of inquiries," McGrath said. "A lot of holders wanted to know what would happen if I become a Supreme Court judge."


McGrath said at the time he had "established a pretty good relationship with all the rod and gun clubs over the years, and they have been happy with the way I handle permits." Some club members told McGrath they weren't going to vote for him because they wanted him to remain a county judge.


The letter was "an informational thing," the judge said at the time. He said he obtained names and addresses through a Freedom of Information request, saying the information is public record and is used all the time for political purposes.


Carpinello said at the time that while he was pro-Second Amendment and believes in the constitutional right to bear arms, he felt "the tone of the letter is problematic. The clear tone ... is that I'm a pro-pistol permit judge."


Carol DeMare can be reached at 454-5431 or by e-mail at cdemare@timesunion.com.


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To comment and to read the state Commission on Judicial Conduct's ruling, see http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol