A tale of two AGs – update on developments

So, in honor of this my 100th post to the blog, you’ll see that the site has been spruced up a bit with a new logo and look.  While the blog may now be more aesthetically-pleasing, the quality of the content isn’t likely to change (for better or worse).

You may recall a few months ago I wrote a little bit about the fact that 4% of the state attorneys general in the United States were under indictment.  I’ve refrained from posting any updates on what’s gone in since in Texas and Pennsylvania because there would, frankly, have been too many updates to post.  Yet, there is an aspect of 1 of the 2 stories that fascinates me in light of a particular ethics rule we have in Tennessee that I’m generally not a fan of but that, in this context, has a lot of merit.  So, I am posting this sort of “omnibus” version of an update in order to make that point.  (I am not qualified to try to weigh in on the politics of either situation, so I won’t.)

First, the much less interesting/less eventful-to-date of the two stories.  Texas’s AG is still facing criminal charges, has voluntarily relinquished certain aspects of his duties, and has recently moved to dismiss the indictments against him.  The prosecutors handling the case responded in opposition to the effort to dismiss just last week.  In the meantime, he continues to be a fully licensed lawyer under Texas law.

The second story has been, from a distance, much more entertaining to read about and certainly creates significantly more complicated ethics issues.  Pennsylvania’s AG has seemingly been in the news at least every couple of weeks since the criminal charges were first announced against her in August 2015.  She’s recently been sued by a few of the prosecutors who used to work for her.  The claims against her, defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and a civil rights/free speech claim, all are premised on the allegation that she leaked grand jury information and selectively released contents of emails they sent to try to silence them for criticizing her.

The biggest ethical issue that has developed over the last few months came about because her law license was temporarily suspended by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as a result of the criminal charges.  Despite being unable to practice law, she has maintained that she does not have to resign from her position because much of her daily work is administrative or involves the making of policy and does not require her to practice law.  She also, around the time of her suspension, released  what she described as “pornographic” emails sent by one of the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Within the last week or so, media reports have come out about an internal memo sent to her by a group of her deputies in which they appear to be setting out a starkly different view of the situation and raising concerns under a few ethics rules about whether they are being exposed to potential disciplinary charges if they are somehow aiding her in the unauthorized practice of law.  This memo has apparently also garnered the attention  of a Pennsylvania Senate committee considering whether to attempt to remove her from her position.  You can read the AG’s response to a subpoena issued in those proceedings and a copy of the internal memo from her deputies here.

When I originally wrote about this situation, I mentioned that my state does not have a publicly-elected AG position.  Rather, our state AG is actually appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Reasonable minds can differ over whether that is a better or worse arrangement than public elections or having the Governor appoint the position. But I don’t think there is any real room for disagreement over the fact that if Tennessee ever found itself in this kind of pickle where our attorney general was suspended from the practice of law, that person would have to resign from the position altogether.

This seems clear to me because we have a provision in our ethics rules, RPC 5.5(h), that prohibits a law firm from “employ[ing] or continu[ing] the employment of a disbarred or suspended lawyer as an attorney, legal consultant, law clerk, paralegal or in any other position of a quasi-legal nature.”  Because our RPC 1.0(c) defines “law firm” to include “lawyer employed in . . . the legal department of a … government agency,” there would appear to be no reasonable argument that any suspended lawyer could continue to be employed during their suspension in the attorney general’s office.  Even if you credited the Pennyslvania AG’s argument that much of her job is administrative and focused on policy-making, that would be readily classifiable as “quasi-legal.”

I’ve been critical in the past of the existence of RPC 5.5(h) in Tennessee because of how it limits the ability of a suspended or disbarred lawyer to rehabilitate herself and because it imposes a one-size-fits-all approach where I don’t think such an approach is the best public policy.  But, watching the Pennsylvania situation from afar, it would be a welcome rule to have in that state right now to shut down at least one of the rings of that circus.

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