LAP: Judges' drug problems may not be as evident because of their "insular" roles

By Bethany Krajelis | May 28, 2013

The heroin-related charges pending against St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook may make some wonder how a judge’s alleged drug problem could go unnoticed.

Cook was charged in federal court last week with heroin possession and being an unlawful user of a controlled substance in possession of firearms. He has entered a plea of not guilty to all the charges.

The charges stem from a federal investigation that led to the execution of warrants last week at Cook’s Belleville home, court chambers and hunting cabin in Pike County, where his colleague, Associate Judge Joseph Christ, died in March.

Although court officials originally said Christ had died of natural causes, the Pike County coroner recently confirmed that he died of cocaine intoxication.

Janet Piper Voss, executive director of Lawyers’ Assistance Program, said just because judges are in the public eye from their positions behind the bench, it’s not always that easy to pinpoint potential substance abuse problems.

Piper said the usage of certain drugs is more noticeable than others.

For instance, she said, alcohol abuse may be easier to detect than substance abuse because it oftentimes carries an odor. And while some users of drugs like heroin and cocaine may show signs of erratic or irresponsible behavior, Piper said that others don’t show any signs.

“Many times, these types of problems can go hidden for long periods of time,” Piper said.

Founded in 1980, LAP helps judges, lawyers, law students and their families overcome alcohol and drug problems, as well as depression and other mental health issues.

LAP, according to its 2011-2012 annual report, helped 229 lawyers, judges, and law students last fiscal year.

Piper said that LAP receives $7 of every attorney’s registration fee to provide this assistance at no cost. The program’s services span from assessments and treatment referrals to interventions and peer support.

Out of the 229 cases LAP handled last fiscal year, about 13 percent dealt with chemical abuse and 35 percent were for chemical dependency, according to the program’s most recent annual report.

The report further notes that about 70 percent of last fiscal year's cases involved some type of psychological problem, such as depression, stress or anxiety.

According to the report, more than 80 percent of the chemical dependency cases last fiscal year were associated with alcohol, followed by cocaine and prescription drugs at 6 percent, crystal meth at 3 percent and marijuana at about 2 percent.

Of the 229 cases last fiscal year, the report shows that only 3 percent came from the judiciary while about 34 percent came from an LAP client in solo practice and 26 percent came from someone working at a law firm.

Piper said judges’ substance abuse problems may not be as evident “by the very nature of the work they do,” saying that judges “tend to be more isolated.”

In its annual report, LAP states that “a judge’s problem is more likely to go unnoticed and untreated because of the insular nature of the judge’s role in the legal system.”

“Judges,” the report adds, “work in isolation and many are reluctant to seek help, often because they are concerned about their problems becoming known and negatively impacting their status and reputation.”

Piper said that the majority of calls made to LAP seeking help are self-referrals, adding that “LAP is here to help and is completely confidential” under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 1.6, which governs confidential information.

A comment to the rule titled, “Lawyers’ Assistance and Court Intermediary Programs,” states that “protecting the confidentiality of such information encourages law students, lawyers and judges to seek assistance through such programs.”

Without such protection, law students, lawyers and judges may hesitate to seek assistance, to the detriment of clients and the public,” the rule's comment adds.

Piper said the only time LAP discloses an alcohol or substance abuse problem is at the direction of the lawyer, law student or judge seeking the program’s help.

Given the confidential protection afforded to those who seek LAP’s help, it is unknown whether Christ or Cook or someone on their behalf had sought the program’s assistance.

It is also unknown whether anyone was aware of the judges alleged drug problems or reported either of them to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) or the Judicial Inquiry Board (JIB).

Neither the ARDC nor the JIB comments on whether they are investigating attorneys or judges until they file a formal complaint.

Supreme Court Rule 8.3, which focuses on reporting professional misconduct, states that a lawyer who knows another lawyer has violated Rule 8.4(b) or 8.4(c), shall inform the appropriate professional authority.

These two provisions of Rule 8.4 require attorneys to inform authorities if they know another lawyer has committed “a criminal act that that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects” or engaged “in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

While it appears that drug usage would fall under the first of these two provisions, a message left for Jim Grogan, the deputy administrator and chief counsel at the ARDC, in an attempt to clarify the ethical responsibilities of reporting such misconduct was not immediately returned Tuesday.

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