New York judge provides helpful reminder of why "may issue" laws are terrible

AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File

In this case, the judge didn’t issue a ruling from the bench. Instead, it’s his behavior that was the subject of a ruling by the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct, which found that the part-time judge in Westchester County tried to abuse his office by throwing his name around to help a neighbor get his concealed carry license under the state’s “may issue” regime.

The discretionary nature of “may issue” laws not only allows those in authority to abuse their power and use it to extort cash and prizes from applicants, it also encourages the type of behavior that drew the attention of the state commission.

In an 11-0 ruling, the commission said that beginning in May 2020, Aronian sent character letters on behalf of his court clerk, Susan Koch, and her husband, Daniel Koch, for unrestricted concealed carry permits. Daniel Koch, who volunteered with Aronian in the Croton Falls Fire Department, had been the judge’s neighbor since 2001, and Susan Koch since 2003. And Susan Koch had worked as a clerk in Aronian’s court since 2015.

At the time, state law generally forbade the legal carrying of guns outside the home without a concealed carry permit from a judge or law enforcement entity. To get approved, applicants needed to show “proper cause” to use the gun such as to hunt or if they had a heightened need for personal protection. (A Supreme Court ruling in June and subsequent state law change facing litigation have changed the law.)

Susan Koch asked Aronian to write a character letter on behalf of her and her husband for unrestricted gun permits, the commission said. Aronian agreed, listing his occupation as judge on both applications dated May 4, 2020.

“I have known Susan Koch for 17 years, as neighbor, friend, and co-worker,” the judge wrote, adding that she “currently serves as my appointed court clerk and is employed by the Town of North Salem.”

In September 2020, Westchester County Judge County Judge Susan Cacace rejected Susan Koch’s application, which had cited personal safety reasons.

If that had been the end of it, you wouldn’t be reading this story. Aronian was free to write his letter of recommendation (under the post-Bruen concealed carry laws in New York, by the way, applicants are required to produce four character references before they can be approved), but the commission found that the judge basically launched a one-man lobbying campaign to overturn the decision.

Aronian, in turn, phoned the courthouse to learn how to appeal such a decision. On Oct. 2, 2020, Aronian wrote a letter to Cacace, this one on town court letterhead that identified him as a town justice and Susan Koch as the court clerk. He tried to make the case that his clerk’s job — and his own — were fraught with potential danger.

“My name and the name of my clerk are on placards on the court entrance and on the very bench from which I preside,” Aronian informed Cacace. “I drive home from court looking in my rearview mirror every single court night. I know that this heightened concern and heightened need for self-protection is every bit as much a reality for my court clerk. I worry for her safety.”

Aronian asked Cacace not to hesitate before calling him directly. Instead, Cacace reported Aronian to the commission.

“It is well-established that writing a letter using judicial stationery to advance the private interests of another person violates the rules,” the panel’s determination said Friday. “When he invoked his judicial status and used his judicial stationery to write to the County Court judge to advocate reconsideration of the denial of Susan Koch’s application, (Aronian) created the improper appearance that he expected special treatment and deference because of his status as a judge.”

Now, all things considered this is a fairly minor offense, which makes the light punishment Aronian received understandable. The judge was admonished; the least severe consequence for what the commission described as using the prestige of the bench to advance a private interest,” which “undermine public confidence in the courts and the administration of justice.”

Here’s the thing, though. Gun owners never had confidence in this system to begin with. They knew that guys like Aronian could and would sometimes pull strings to help out a friend, just as they knew that at various times and in various departments the issuing authorities were more likely to give you permission to carry if you gave them a little something in return. Hell, I’m pretty sure that Aronian knew this is how the system really worked. Why give authorities discretion if they can’t use (and abuse) it?

These may issue laws led to all kinds of injustices big and small. Honestly, Aronian shouldn’t have had to write that letter because Susan Koch should never have had to beg permission to exercise her right to carry in the first place. An injustice was done to her when her application was denied because her own personal safety wasn’t deemed a good enough reason to want to carry a firearm in self-defense. The Westchester judge who refused Koch’s request was operating within the boundaries of the law at the time, so she’ll face no admonishment, but the Supreme Court itself delivered the strongest censure possible when it overturned the “may issue” regime. Soon SCOTUS will be asked to weigh in on the state’s post-Bruen gun laws, and I expect that the majority will once again rule that New York lawmakers are treading all over the rights of the state’s citizens.