What Do You Do With The Drunken Judge? Media Distortion And Judge Gisele Pollack

Broward County (Florida) Judge Gisele Pollack, a recovering alcoholic, showed all the signs of suffering a relapse during her session on the bench two weeks ago, when she abruptly ended the day’s proceedings after an hour and a half that featured the judge slurring her words and acting erratically. She presides over misdemeanor drug court, a program she established shortly after being elected as a county judge.  Her program offenders to have their charges dismissed and their drug records erased after six months of treatment.

After staying away from work for a day, Judge Pollack returned to the bench in the late afternoon, and presided over a courtroom packed with about a hundred drug offenders, along with  their friends and their families. The event marked the completion of rehab for dozens of offenders and the dismissal of their misdemeanor marijuana charges.“You’ve got to remain vigilant,” she told the graduates, emphasizing that they had to work hard to avoid relapses that would  place them back in front of her, and perhaps in jail.

After court, she acknowledged her own health crisis and announced that she was going into an outpatient rehab program. An attorney retained by the judge in the wake of her conduct attributed her relapse to personal issues, telling reporters that she has  “had some severe personal tragedy in her life. Her mother recently passed away, and they were very close. It’s been really devastating for her.” Apparently her son is also suffering from a serious illness. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, a longtime friend, told reporters, 

“If this causes the people to not have faith and not have trust in what goes on in that drug courtroom, then she will have to step aside,’ he said. ‘My hope is is people will wrap their ever-loving arms around Judge Pollack just as she has wrapped her arms around thousands of people.”

What’s going on here? I think it’s pretty obvious: a recovering alcoholic in a critical position of public trust suffered a relapse, as alcoholics are wont to do. If one is an alcoholic, this is a symptom of a very persistent, pernicious and incurable disease that kills many Americans every year, does horrific damage to families, businesses, governments and the economy, and that is incurable. Being an alcoholic is not an ethical violation for a judge or a lawyer, nor is having a relapse. Allowing that relapse to affect the competent performance of one’s duties, however, is an ethical violation that calls into question a legal professional’s ability to do her job. It could trigger professional sanctions; it certainly should trigger an official inquiry. A Florida judge appearing drunk on the bench, just once, is still a massive ethical breach. It arguably violates the first five Canons of Judicial Ethics a Florida judge is bound to follow…

  • Canon 1. A Judge Shall Uphold the Integrity and Independence of the Judiciary. Obviously drunken judges undermine d the judiciary’s  integrity.
  • Canon 2. A Judge Shall Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in all of the Judge’s Activities. Yes, I would say acting like a drunken sailor while presiding over drug court not only appears to be improper, but is.
  • Canon 3. A Judge Shall Perform the Duties of Judicial Office Impartially and Diligently. Being drunk precludes a verdict of “diligently” doing anything.
  • Canon 4. A Judge Is Encouraged to Engage in Activities to Improve the Law, the Legal System, and the Administration of Justice. Being drunk as a skunk in public is not such an activity, Indeed, such conduct degrades and is profoundly damaging to “the Law, the Legal System, and the Administration of Justice.”
  • Canon 5. A Judge Shall Regulate Extrajudicial Activities to Minimize the Risk of Conflict With Judicial Duties. I know that hitting the booze at 8 AM is not, strictly speaking, the kind of extrajudicial activities this Canon aims to discourage, but it sure conflicts with judicial duties.

What should happen now? A stint in rehab is a good start. In many respects, the incident is similar, though not as prottacted and embarrassing, to the ongoing drama involving Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. A public official who appears drunk in public and while engaged in official duties undermines trust in both the official and the government generally. The proper course is for that official to resign, and if he or she wants to return to public service, attempt to do so following treatment and a renewed public consensus that she can be trusted not to behave in such a manner again. Friend Finklestein’s plea notwithstanding, this has nothing to do with kindness or compassion. What if she were an airline pilot or a school bus driver? Judge Pollack just crashed the justice system while drunk, and she has no more business getting behind the bench now than a relapsed pilot should keep his license to fly.


The way this story has been covered in some news media reports is dishonest, manipulative, unfair and biased. Some reporters, pundits and editors deserve to be sanctioned and removed too; unfortunately, ethics in journalism is a myth.

Let’s start with the U.K.’s Daily Mail. In its coverage, the on-line tabloid carefully worked to create the impression of blatant hypocrisy, beginning the story, “A Florida drug court judge is headed for rehab herself after an erratic performance at the bench last week.” Later, the Mail says Pollack “has never made a secret of her past alcohol and drug abuse problems.” None of the local media sources say anything about the judge’s past “drug abuse problems,” nor can I find any record of them. She is an alcoholic, and that means, and has always meant, that her alcohol problem is present, not past. That does not make her a drug abuser, which suggests illegality. The story also goes to some lengths to keep from specifying that the “rehab” Judge Pollack is attending is alcohol-related, and not the same as the drug rehab she sends the offenders in her court to complete. Naturally, the Mail’s misleading coverage has been picked up and repeated virtually verbatim by some U.S. media.

Then, over at Popehat, one of Ken White’s co-bloggers, Clark, was apparently looking for a story on which to hang his rant about how the entire societal and governmental system in America is rotten to the core and how someone needs to “burn the fucking system to the ground.” The story of a compassionate judge who has pioneered a program to divert drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, who suffers from alcoholism and who suffered a relapse, like most alcoholics do during their recoveries, wasn’t what he needed, but he decided to use it anyway, completely misrepresenting the facts and the issues along the way. He began by adopting the Mail’s fabricated drug abuse charge. Then he wrote…

“I’m a good judge” … said by government employee and judge Gisele Pollack who, it seems, sentenced people to jail because of their drug use…while she, herself, was high on drugs. But, in her defense, “she’s had some severe personal tragedy in her life”. And that’s why, it seems, she’s being allowed to check herself into rehab instead of being thrown in jail.…because not a single poor person or non government employee who gets caught using drugs ever “had some severe personal tragedy in her life”.

If there is such a thing as “yellow blogging,” this is it. Having an alcoholic relapse is not being “high on drugs”–it’s called being drunk. I have been drunk a few times in my life, but I have never been high on drugs, which suggests breaking the law. Yes, alcohol is a drug, and if that’s what Clark meant, then this is pure deceit. Nobody refers to being drunk as “high on drugs,” and to do so is intentionally deceptive. Nor is being drunk on the job likely to get anyone sent to jail, as presumably Clark knows. Ah, but Clark has bigger fish to fry: he is building a case of privilege, of do as I say, not as I do, of a system where there are separate standards for rich and poor. Which there are, but Judge Pollack’s relapse doesn’t prove it, suggest it, or have anything to do with it. Yet this is what a judge dealing with a chronic disease justifies to the Popehat blogger:

The older I get, the more I see, the more I read, the more clear it becomes to me that the entire game is rigged. The leftists and the rightists each see half of the fraud. The lefties correctly note that a poor kid caught with cocaine goes to jail, while a Bush can write it off as a youthful mistake (they somehow overlook the fact that their man Barrack hasn’t granted clemency to any one of the people doing federal time for the same felonies he committed). The righties note that government subsidized windmills kill protected eagles with impunity while Joe Sixpack would be deep in the crap if he even picked up a dead eagle from the side of the road. The lefties note that no one was prosecuted over the financial meltdown. The righties note that the Obama administration rewrote bankruptcy law on the fly to loot value from GM stockholders and hand it to the unions. The lefties note that Republicans tweak export rules to give big corporations subsidies. Every now and then both sides join together to note that, hey! the government is spying on every one of us…or that, hey! the government stole a bunch of people’s houses and gave them to Pfizer, because a privately owned for-profit corporation is apparently what the Constitution means by “public use”. What neither side seems to realize is that the system is not reformable. There are multiple classes of people, but it boils down to the connected, and the not connected. Just as in pre-Revolutionary France, there is a very strict class hierarchy, and the very idea that we are equal before the law is a laughable non sequitur.

That’s terrific, except Judge Pollack has nothing to do with any of that. By all accounts, she has been instrumental in keeping indigent drug users out of jail. She has sent them to rehab. She herself is not an illegal drug user—alcohol, in case you missed it, is legal, and unless someone is disturbing the peace, drunks are seldom jailed, and while those who show up for work smashed may be fired for cause, they are seldom arrested, no matter what their income is.  But Clark needed Judge Pollack to be a rich, privileged hypocrite abusing power, who went to work each day and threw the book at kids and poor people who used a little pot to get through their miserable days, sentencing them harshly while she flagrantly broke the very same laws she was punishing them for violating, and when she was caught, the corrupt system rallied behind her to let her avoid justice. So that’s how he portrayed her. This is abusing another human being for a personal agenda. This is a violation of the Golden Rule. This is spreading falsehood to achieve one’s ends, misleading one’s readers, and as unethical as blogging can get.

Never mind. Popehat’s readership exploded with applause over the rant, most never bothering to consider the brutally unfair characterization of the story that sparked it. Are people really this ignorant about alcoholism? Among the 298 comments, only four pointed out that Pollack is a strong rehabilitation-supporting judge in drug matters, and that Clark’s implication of hypocrisy is nonsense. None that I found made the critical distinction between illegal drug abuse and an alcoholism relapse, a distinction that Clark either intentionally blurred to support his rant, or somehow doesn’t comprehend.

An alcoholic’s relapse is about as volitional as a cancer patient coming out of remission. Portraying it as otherwise is shows malice, incompetence, or ignorance. A judge having a relapse while on the bench is still a serious breach of professional ethics, but calling it drug abuse is dishonest and despicable.


Pointer and Source: Popehat

Facts: New Times, Huffington Post, Mail Online, Sun Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel


11 thoughts on “What Do You Do With The Drunken Judge? Media Distortion And Judge Gisele Pollack

  1. Let her keep her job after an admonition, a fine, and mandate she pass a breath test to detect alcohol every single time she wants to sit on the bench. She can voluntarily resile from this, but it is then taken that she’s unable to do her job that day. A single failure though means her judgement is too impaired to be acceptable.

    I feel that if “reasonable accommodation” is made for her illness – so while she has to be prevented from sitting while intoxicated, merely being unable to fulfill her duties on rare occasions should result in nothing more than docking of pay as long as it happens infrequently – she will be spectacularly well qualified to act judicially in matters of addiction. She’d be able to judge degree of rehabilitation far more accurately than I would, for example.

  2. I’m sorry Jack, but I have to agree with Clark…

    If she sentenced even one person to a single day of jail that day, she is getting different treatment. Unless she got drunk at work and took a taxi home, she drove drunk twice.

    Being allowed to go to rehab and then pretend that nothing happened is unacceptable.

    Clark called it – burn it to the fucking ground.

    • Huh? Did you actually read the post?

      First of all, Clark absurdly misrepresented her conduct. She did not engage in illegal drug use, or drug use at all, in legal terms. So he cheated.

      Second, I guarantee you that she didn’t sentence anyone in misdemeanor drug court for being drunk.

      Third, I didn’t say that she should return from rehab and then nothing else should happen. I said she needed to be disciplined, and that I felt she should resign.

      Fourth, we have no idea how she got to work. Maybe she walked. Maybe she took a cab. We don’t know, and anyway, nobody gets arrested for drunk driving AFTER they have left the vehicle. So that’s not an issue.

      She is not getting “different treatment” at all, since she did not engage in the conduct she is judging.

      Go ahead and approve of Clark’s (lazily written and reasoned) rant if you like, but you’ve stated no valid criticism of the judge. We do not punish alcoholics for being alcoholics. We do sanction judges who behave unprofessionally, but we also make sure they get treated if its due to illness.

      Were you awake when you wrote this?

  3. A point in her favor is that she (apparently) voluntarily halted the court proceedings after an hour and a half. Of course she should not have started them in the first place but it means she had enough integrity even while drunk to spare the world another six and a half hours of drunken judging.

    It’s even conceivable that she made an ethical mistake and thought her obligation to show up at work was the most important one. She wouldn’t be the first alcoholic in history to figure “I’ve been drinking but I can totally handle it”. Still unquestionably misconduct, but easier to understand.

    Tangentially, thanks to our host for saying “alcohol is a drug”. Far too few people realize this. It is reassuring to hear someone say it out loud.

  4. Jack — I’ve been following your blog for some time now, and while I often disagree with you, I have to say that I think this is the most well thought-out (did I spell that right?) post that you have done. I don’t necessarily agree with every single point here, but the analysis makes me stop and think about some of my initial reactions. Well done.

  5. So now (after I complimented you), I have a different observation way off topic. Are ALL the insane, stupid, and/or worrying legal stories out of Florida? What about Vermont or Wyoming? There has to be some crazy judges, attorneys, or parties in some other states ….

    • It takes courage, honesty, dedication to admit that you are struggling and that you will seek counseling.
      Judge Gisele Pollack did it, and she did it,because she wants to be healthy and strong to continue serving the community she loves so much.
      Judge Gisele Pollack is the most caring and compassionate person. She is the BEST judge Broward County has. She is an outstanding, caring jurist who brings a human touch to the criminal justice system.
      I believe she has the strength and desire to overcome this difficulty. I am certain that she will continue to serve our community and she will continue to make a positive difference for so many of our residents.
      Judge Gisele Pollack, like every human being, has challenges but she is a strong woman that has proven to be one of our wisest and most compassionate jurists.

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