The former Washington County judge who founded the county’s drug court has been disbarred from the practice of law for stealing cocaine out of the court’s evidence locker.
The state Supreme Court ruled 5-2 on Thursday to disbar former Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Michael Pozonsky from practicing law in Pennsylvania. The decision follows the recommendation of the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Pozonsky had asked the court that he only be suspended for the conduct, for which he later pleaded guilty to and was incarcerated for. However, writing for the majority of the court, Justice Debra Todd said the conduct was particularly egregious, and had turned the court’s proceedings that he had handled into “a shame and a farce.”
“In our democratic society, public confidence in the judiciary is the cornerstone of the people’s regard for the legitimacy of its decisions, and a high degree of public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process is therefore essential to ensure that court decisions will be respected by the people,” Todd said. “When a judge’s actions undermine the public’s confidence in the honesty of the judiciary, it is not only that institution which suffers; indeed, our entire system of government, which depends upon the people’s respect for the law, is damaged.”
Pozonsky’s attorney, Andrew Salemme of the Lindsay Law Firm, said Pozonsky is doing well, but the ruling was a “setback and another hurdle” for his client.
“It’s not the outcome we were hoping for, but we will respect the ruling,” Salemme said.
According to Todd, Pozonsky was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1980, and was elected to the Washington County bench in 1997. He was a judge for 14 years and presided over criminal trials, which often involving drug-related crimes. In 2005, he created the Drug Court of Washington County, which provides intensive judicial supervision, drug testing and treatment for repeat drug offenders suffering from addiction.
Todd said Pozonsky began stealing cocaine from the evidence locker in his chambers beginning in November 2010 and continued the conduct through January 2012. According to Todd, he regularly stole cocaine and smuggled it to his home, where he used it. Todd said he sometimes tried to cover up the theft by substituting baking powder and other substances.
Acting on some reports of suspicious behavior from the county district attorney, then-president judge and others, the state attorney general began investigating Pozonsky, Todd said. After his office was searched in May 2012, he moved with his family to Alaska, where he spent nearly two months as a workers’ compensation hearing judge.
The attorney general charged Pozonsky criminally in October 2013, and he pleaded guilty to three second-degree misdemeanors, for which he spent one month in prison.
In asking that the court not disbar him, Pozonsky noted that he had never been subject to disciplinary proceedings, and he also detailed his post-conviction community service activities.
Todd, however, said the mitigating factors “do not outweigh the momentous gravity of Pozonsky’s use of his judicial office to commit crimes.”
Chief counsel for the ODC did not return a call for comment.