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Court News Ohio

Former Marion County Judge Indefinitely Suspended Following Felony Conviction

The Supreme Court of Ohio indefinitely suspended Jason Warner from the practice of law after the former Marion County Common Pleas judge was convicted of two felonies for leaving the scene of an auto accident.

Warner resigned from office after he was sentenced to two years in prison. Warner had been under an interim suspension imposed by the Supreme Court following his March 2021 felony convictions for complicity to leaving the scene of an accident and complicity to tampering with evidence. He remained under an interim felony suspension until today, and the Court’s ruling gave him no credit for time served during his interim suspension.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated because judges hold positions of considerable authority and are entrusted with a great deal of power, they are expected to conduct themselves according to high standards of professional conduct.

“Warner failed to live up to those high standards,” the chief justice wrote.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Joseph T. Deters joined the chief justice’s opinion. Justice Jennifer Brunner did not participate in the case.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer noted that in this case, the Court has returned to the precedent of not granting a judge who has been convicted of a felony offense credit for time served under an interim felony suspension. He stated the Court made an exception when it granted former Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter credit for the nine years she served under an interim suspension following a 2014 felony conviction.

“To be consistent with the disciplinary sanctions that we have previously imposed on judges who had been convicted of felony offenses and to ensure respect for and trust in our system, we cannot award a judge who has been convicted of a felony offense with time served under the interim felony suspension,” he wrote.

Judge, Wife Leave Accident Scene
In June 2020, then-Judge Warner and his wife were returning home shortly after midnight from a social gathering where they consumed alcohol. Warner’s wife was driving the couple’s Jeep when she failed to yield to an oncoming car. The Jeep struck the other vehicle, causing it to go off the road and hit a utility pole.

Witnesses saw a man and woman walk around the crash site and look into the crashed car. The couple did not call 911 or wait for first responders to arrive. After the couple left, one of the witnesses called 911, medics extracted the driver from the other vehicle. The driver suffered serious injuries.

After arriving home, the Warners put their Jeep in their garage and waited about nine hours before contacting law enforcement. Warner’s wife admitted driving the Jeep at the time of the crash, and the crash investigation confirmed her admission. Then-Judge Warner was charged with two counts of complicity to commit vehicular assault. He faced single counts of complicity to leaving the scene of an accident and complicity to tampering with evidence.

Prior to trial, the vehicular assault charges were dismissed, and Warner was convicted of the remaining two complicity charges. He appealed his conviction to the Third District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Former Judge Contested Disciplinary Action
Based on his conviction, the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against Warner with the Board of Professional Conduct. The board found that Warner violated several judicial and attorney conduct rules, including the requirement that a judge comply with the law and act at all times “in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.” The board also found he violated the rule prohibiting a lawyer from engaging in conduct that adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law.

The board recommended that the Supreme Court indefinitely suspend Warner with no credit for time served during the interim suspension.

Warner objected to the board’s report, which triggered an oral argument before the Supreme Court. Warner argued the evidence showed he lacked the criminal intent to commit the two offenses. He noted that his wife testified that after the accident, she told him to get in the Jeep and that she drove off despite his protests. He said he did not assist his wife in leaving the accident and did not realize she would drive away once they got into their vehicle. He also argued that as a passenger, he had no legal duty to remain at the scene, prevent his wife from leaving, or render aid to anyone who was injured in the accident.

Chief Justice Kennedy explained that although Warner might contest the accuracy of the board’s report and recommendation, the Supreme Court independently reviews the record and ultimately determines if there are any rule violations. She wrote that a criminal conviction is “conclusive evidence of the commission of that offense” in any judicial or attorney disciplinary proceedings. Warner cannot challenge his convictions in a disciplinary proceeding, the Court concluded.

The Court found that the convictions established he violated the judicial conduct rules. The opinion also noted that in a prior decision, the Court found a lawyer who left the scene of an accident engaged in conduct that adversely reflected on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law.

In rejecting Warner’s claims, the Court noted his conduct was “sufficiently egregious” to warrant a finding that his actions adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law. The Court observed that Warner should have known the victim could have been seriously injured, and Warner did not know whether anyone else was coming to the victim’s assistance. The opinion noted that Warner acknowledged he “could have left [the victim] for dead.”

Supreme Court Considered Sanction 
In recommending that Warner be indefinitely suspended, the board distinguished his conduct from judges who had been disbarred following a felony conviction. The board explained that in cases leading to disbarment, the judges engaged in “repeated, purposeful, preplanned felonious conduct.” In contrast, Warner’s “reprehensible and abhorrent” behavior stemmed from a single, unplanned act, the board noted.

The opinion also noted that when considering whether to disbar a judge, the Court distinguishes between a judge committing a felony while acting in his official capacity and acts that did not involve misuse of the judge’s judicial position.

The Court concluded that Warner’s misconduct did not occur in his capacity as a judge, nor did he engage in preplanned criminal conduct over an extended period of time.

“We therefore agree that permanent disbarment is not warranted,” the Court stated.

The Court required Warner to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

2023-0180. Disciplinary Counsel v. Warner, Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-551.

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