An incredibly unhelpful ethics opinion from Colorado

Were you looking for something that is very well-written but entirely unhelpful to your needs as a lawyer?  Well, you’ve come to the right place today.

Wait, I now see how that paragraph could be misconstrued in an entirely unflattering way and as an inadvertent passing of judgment on this whole blog.  Obviously, I didn’t mean that.  After all, I said “well-written.”

Anyway, what I’m actually intending to refer to is Colorado Formal Ethics Opinion 134 which was enacted in January 2018 but which was brought to my attention by a loyal reader of this space.  It likely came into his path because of some treatment in the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual which I admittedly have not read beyond their headline and lead sentence, which is as follows:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says.

That is one way to spin the Colorado opinion and draw peoples attention, but studying the opinon itself reveals that the picture being painted is far too rosy because a more fair introduction to the opinion would be:

Advance Agreements on Joint Settlement OK to Memorialize But Lawyer Can’t Enforce It in the Future, Colorado Bar Says

A lawyer who represents multiple clients in a case can prepare for them, with informed consent, an agreement stating that a majority vote controls for settlement offers, a recent Colorado bar ethics opinion says, but what would be the point?  The same opinion explains that if any of the clients later rejects the settlement and refuses to abide by the majority vote then the lawyer doesn’t have settlement authority and can’t continue to represent everybody.

I’m not kidding.  That is the TL/DR version of Colorado Formal Opinion 134.  Don’t believe me, go read it for yourself.

Now, Colorado may feel like it has given a helpful opinion because it distinguishes its opinion from some others by saying it is perfectly ethical for a lawyer to participate in preparing an agreement along these lines for jointly represented clients and explaining how Rule 1.8(g) is not triggered until some future point when a settlement is on the table for consideration.  But . . . geez.  From a practical perspective, it’s an exercise in navel-gazing because of this paragraph of the opinion:

If multiple clients agree in advance on a majority-decision rule for how they will respond to an aggregate settlement proposal, but one client in the future refuses to follow the majority’s decision, the dissenting client might be in breach of that agreement.  The other clients might have claims against the dissenting client.  This circumstance creates an unwaivable conflict for their joint lawyer due to the dispute between in the dissenting client and the other clients.  The lawyer may not take sides in the dispute, and may not seek to enforce the agreement againts the dissenting client, on behalf of the majority clients, by compelling the dissenting client to settle.  The lawyer might need to withdraw from the joint representation entirely.

Because of that, it seems hard to understand how any good Colorado lawyer armed with this opinion could ever respond to an inquiry by joint clients about putting together a majority-rule agreement with any advice other than:

Yeah, you don’t want me to go through all of that.  If anyone changes their mind later, I can’t enforce it and you probably just end up in additional litigation maybe over breaching the contract and you all just end up having to hire more and different lawyers.  So, let’s just wait until we have something in front of us to think about on settlement some day and then work it out if and when that day ever comes around.

 

 

 

My 300th Post. The shady “Stormy” story gets shadier.

If you had told me back in March 2015 when I started this blog that my 300th blogpost would struggle with trying to decide which angle of a statement to The New York Times made by a personal attorney for the 45th President of the United States about paying $130,000 to a porn star to apparently buy silence regarding that porn star’s past affair with the President at a time that was within months of the President’s third wife giving birth to his fifth child would be worst legal ethics bit, then I … well, I don’t even know what I would have begun to have thought, much less said.

But this is the reality of the world in which we now live.  So, here we are.  Let’s get this over with.

You’ve certainly likely already reports from yesterday either The New York Times article itself, or the thoughts of other folks online about the story which are too numerous to try to link to at this point.  The very short version is Michael Cohen, a New York lawyer who has been the private, personal attorney of the current occupant of The White House and who was, in the recent past, something of an in-house attorney for the 45th President’s family corporate organization has now provided a statement to one of the largest newspapers in the nation — that he says echoes substantively what he has told the Federal Election Commission — that he personally paid $130,000 to a woman, who goes professionally by the name, Stormy Daniels, and was not reimbursed directly or indirectly by the current President’s campaign or his family corporate organization.

I am a lawyer – I may have mentioned that on one or more occasions.  For anyone who might be reading this and wondering what it is like to be a lawyer, Mr. Cohen’s experience as he describes it is definitely not what lawyers do.  The best of our profession often times think of ourselves as, and even describe ourselves, as problem solvers.  But we traditionally are not allowed to solve problems for people simply by throwing our own money at the problem.  That aspect is just one of the ways in which this incident, and how the statement describes it, raises a whole host of immediate, problematic ethics issues for discussion.

Those include:

(a) If Cohen’s statement about the transaction is true, it might have been a violation of New York’s ethics rules on business transactions with clients or not providing financial assistance to a client regarding litigation or certainly otherwise a scenario that creates a serious, personal interest conflict of interest for the attorney.  (b) The making of the statement itself is not something a lawyer should likely be doing unless he’s been instructed to by the client because it just made things worse for the lawyer’s client because the porn star who had been worried she was still under an NDA now believes she is free to speak out about the affair and actually confirm other media reports rather than being coy about the whole situation. (c) It also is quite likely that Cohen’s version of the events is probably not 100% the truth, key details have been omitted, and it could very well, if nothing else, be a violation of a rule such as RPC 8.4(c).

Now, in trying to discuss such topics at length, I could repeat what other fine lawyers on the ground in New York and who are well versed in ethics have now already said in a story in The ABA Journal online about the likely violation of New York RPC 1.8(e), but I won’t.  You can read what they say at this link instead.  (Plus, I quite recently wrote about a somewhat similar kind of situation involving a much less crazy overall scenario and so it seems like it isn’t necessary to write more about the “doing a financial favor for a client” piece of the puzzle.)

I could also spend some time complaining about the fact that much of what I first read online posted by journalists about Cohen’s statement was how everybody kept claiming that Cohen had said he’d paid the money to Ms. Daniels “out of his own pocket,” which he never actually said apparently.  But, instead you can go read a good take on that aspect of the situation here.

I also could focus on the fact that, without respect to the shadiness of the whole transaction and how problematic that is for a lawyer to be near, the decision to give a statement to The New York Times appears likely to damage his client as Ms. Daniels is now signaling through the media that she can tell all because Cohen’s public statement confirming the payment is a breach of the NDA she signed.  But, there is already a better article about that development you can read here.

Instead, I want to point out my own opinion, given the way a certain someone is known to operate, about how this likely went down:

Cohen is likely telling the truth about paying with funds of his for which no one reimbursed him, but omitting the most salient detail.  He probably wasn’t “reimbursed” by anyone after making the payment because he was probably provided those funds, pretty much immediately in advance of the transaction, as some sort of bonus or even a “gift” with the tacit understanding about what he was expected to do with those funds — purchase Ms. Daniels’s silence.

So, under that theory, if Cohen’s conduct is unethical, then it is probably because it either is, or might very well be akin to, money laundering or money laundering in reverse. . . if that’s a thing.

Idaho why I insist on punny titles.

So, those familiar with this space may remember I have written a bit from time-to-time about Tennessee’s proposed rule revision to adopt a modified version of ABA Model Rule 8.4(g).  The future of the proposal is still up in the air and the public comment period continues to run until March 21, 2018.  If you want to, you can go read those comments that have been submitted so far at this link.  The Court regularly updates the contents of the PDF at that link as new comments are submitted.  (Spoiler alert:  quite a few lawyers are pointing to their religious beliefs as being under attack if an ethics rule is adopted that would prohibit them from harassing or discriminating against people and, in the process in my opinion, overlooking the vast chasm that exists between proclaiming one’s personal beliefs but still treating all people with respect and conduct that involves harassing or discriminating against someone.)

The purpose of this post is not exactly to provide an update on Tennessee’s proposal.  Instead, the reason for writing is to share another approach to the topic that I learned of recently when I was getting fully up-to-speed on Idaho’s rules.

Although it was only tangentially relevant to my presentation to the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, I learned that not only does Idaho have the same RPC 8.4(d) and Comment [3] approach as Tennessee [both patterned after the older ABA Model Rule approach] but, in addition to that, Idaho has additional language targeting lawyer conduct motivated by discrimination in its RPC 4.4.

In Tennessee, for example, RPC 4.4(a)(1) prohibits the following sort of conduct:

(a)       In representing a client, a lawyer shall not: (1) use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….

Idaho’s version of this rule, however, adds something extra by way of an example of what is included:

(a) In representing a client, a lawyer shall not: (1) use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, including conduct intended to appeal to or engender bias against a person on account of that person’s
gender, race, religion, national origin, or sexual preference, whether that bias is directed to other counsel, court personnel, witnesses, parties, jurors, judges, judicial officers, or any other participants….

It is an interesting approach because I have found myself, in some discussions at seminars in Tennessee where I’ve discussed my support for the proposed rule responding to examples of things lawyers say could become fodder for a bar complaint if the rule were revised, pointing to the fact that the conduct being described could very well be pursued as a violation of RPC 4.4(a).  I think that’s likely true in a number of litigation-related examples of sexual harassment or usage of racial and other kinds of epithets directed at others involved in the process, but would only cover issues related to when a lawyer is representing a client.  I happen to think that’s likely true in any jurisdiction that has language like Tennessee’s RPC 4.4(a) even without going to the trouble of elaborating on the point as Idaho has in its rule.

But, Idaho’s approach is certainly an interesting one as something of a belt-and-suspenders approach to trying to stop such conduct by lawyers, but only when they are representing clients.

Friday follow up. Good news and bad news.

I seem to be trending toward this model of one new/fresh substantive post early in the week and one of these “FFU” posts at the end of the week, but I’m not sure if this is a rut or my script going forward.  A very intelligent and thoughtful lawyer asked me while I was in Vancouver what my publishing schedule was, and I had to embarrassingly admit that a fixed schedule was not something I had.  I told him what I’d tell you – if you asked — I try my best to at least post twice a week, but the days varies and some weeks I am better at this than I am other weeks.  Not the kind of consistent excellence that builds a readership, I readily admit.

So, oh year.  The follow ups.  Good news and bad news.

First, the good news.  The Oregon Supreme Court has approved the revision to RPC 7.3 in that state that I wrote a bit about recently.  You can read the Oregon court’s order . . . eventually (I can’t find it yet online) [updated 2/10/18 – Thanks to Amber Hollister, you can now see the order hereAmended SCO 18-005 Amending RPC 7-3 and 8-3 signed 2-7-18], but you can get your confirmation that I’m not lying to you here.

Second (also last), the bad news.  D.C. has now officially issued a 60-day suspension (with potential for it to be much longer) for the former G.E. in-house counsel that I wrote some about quite a few moons ago.  One of the panel presentations I had the chance to sit through in Vancouver touched on issues of lawyer whistleblowers.  You can reach your own conclusions about whether we currently live in a world in which lawyers should be encouraged to be whistleblowers (particularly, for example, in-house lawyers in Washington, D.C. these days), but the only conclusion that can be drawn from this D.C. outcome is that anyone who learns about the punishment that was sanctioned will be a whole lot less willing to do so than they would otherwise be.

I remain particularly skeptical of the treatment afforded Ms. Koeck by the D.C. bar given the fact – as discussed way back when (which was itself a FFU almost a year ago so…) – that they also decided to punish the lawyers who gave Ms. Koeck advice and guidance along the way.  Which is, as far as these things go, even a more chilling wrinkle.  You can read a National Law Journal piece on the news out of D.C. here.

Idaho why lawyers are so often tripped up on this.

I’m writing from Boise where tomorrow I’m delighted to have the chance to speak on legal ethics for the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association.  (I’m also delighted that the weather is unseasonably warm at the moment.)  Last year I had the chance to do a similar presentation for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.  Prosecuting attorneys throughout the country are finding themselves more frequently in the cross-hairs of disciplinary proceedings.

But today’s post isn’t really about that, but it does help explain the selection process.  As I find myself drawn to write about a recent instance of discipline imposed on a private attorney in Idaho that involves behavior that I’ve counseled lawyers about so I know it happens to be relevant beyond just the Idaho Bar.

The case involves the issuance of a suspension order against Attorney Beckett issued at the end of January 2018, but for which the 28-day active suspension period will run during the month of February.  You can read the press release put out by Idaho State Bar Counsel here.

The underlying case was a personal injury lawsuit, and Beckett was able to get the case successfully settled for his client.  His client, though, wanted immediate access to parts of what would be forthcoming from the settlement.  Perhaps simply motivated by an effort to be accommodating, or more likely because of a failure to properly communicate with the client and manage expectations regarding how long such things take, Beckett agreed to provide two advances of the forthcoming settlement funds to the client out of his own money and from money belonging to a separate company Beckett owned.

As the press release explains, he didn’t do that in a way that was at all proper because she didn’t manage to keep the funds properly segregated to avoid commingling them with money in other accounts and also didn’t communicate to the client the available alternatives.  Despite the fact that, as the press release makes clear, Beckett didn’t charge any interest or fees for the transaction and that no other clients were harmed in any way, the conduct violated Rule 1.15 and 1.4 of the Idaho Rules and merited a 60-day suspension, with 28 days of active suspension, and a six-month probationary period.

What is interesting is that the press release makes no mention of Rule 1.8(a) governing business transactions with clients.  When I have had to counsel lawyers about inquiries from clients along these lines, that is the Rule most pertinent to the discussion for a path to actually doing what the client wants if the lawyer is insistent on providing an accommodation.

Idaho, like Tennessee, has a Rule 1.8(a) patterned after the ABA Model Rule.  Tennessee’s, for example, provides that a business transaction with a client – which is what a loan like what Beckett did would be — cannot happen unless

(1) the transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client;

(2) the client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and

(3) the client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.

Now, working through that rule is not 100% of the battle altogether, because the risk still exists that a bar counsel would argue that other provisions in the same rule, RPC 1.8(e) and (i) in Tennessee for example, would still work to prohibit such a business transaction altogether if the case has been settled but no order of dismissal ending the litigation has been entered.

Those provisions provide:

(e) A lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, except that:

(1) a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter; and

(2) a lawyer representing an indigent client may pay court costs and expenses of litigation on behalf of the client.

and

(i) A lawyer shall not acquire a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of litigation the lawyer is conducting for a client, except that the lawyer may:

(1) acquire a lien authorized by law to secure the lawyer’s fee or expenses; and

(2) contract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in a civil case.

RPC 1.8(i) has always struck me as a prohibition that can be drafted around in the transaction documents to sever any connection between the litigation and the loan, but (e) is trickier if the litigation, despite being settled is technically still “pending” at the time of the client’s inquiry.

EVA(n) good things are complicated by ethical obligations.

So, this week’s biggest news in terms of the role of artificial intelligence in the practice of law is the rollout of a new, free AI product from ROSS Intelligence.  The product is called EVA, and you can read all about it here.

The short version of it is that when the other side files a brief in your lawsuit, you can upload the brief and EVA will analyze the cases being relied upon, alert you to other cases where those cases have been negatively treated, and point you to other relevant cases to fast track your research efforts.

It sounds great, and it probably is great.  But, me being me, I immediately started thinking about questions such as:

Will ROSS, through EVA, be keeping all of the data that is uploaded to it?

What are the terms and conditions lawyers have to agree to in order to use EVA?

Will those lawyers need their client’s permission to upload such documents into the EVA platform?

Here is a link to those terms and conditions so you can read them yourself should you be so inclined (at that link, you will need to click on the link titled Terms of Use to get those to popup on your screen), but I think the short version is that, almost always, a lawyer can safely make the decision to upload the other side’s brief into EVA without even talking to your client by relying upon the authority provided under Rule 1.6(a) to say that doing so is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation of your client.

It is, of course, interesting that what you are uploading is actually the work product of the other side and that the terms and conditions require you to say that you have all the necessary ownership rights to send the document through the EVA service.  Along those lines, I would imagine the weird instances of counsel attempting to claim trademark rights in briefs they file could complicate usage issues.  More realistically though, cases that are operating under protective orders and where briefs are filed under seal would seem to be the one area where lawyers could get themselves into trouble by using the free EVA service.

TIKD off my list.

Some day I’m going to get tired of having pun with TIKD titles, and you’ve probably already gotten tired of me doing it, but today is not that day for me.  I was looking to find something to be able to easily write about today before scrambling out of town for some speaking engagements and meetings and Roy Simon has come through for me again.  Roy kindly pointed me this morning to the latest development in the saga down in Florida over the traffic ticket app, TIKD, and its fight with the Florida Bar.

If you are not a Law360 subscriber, you can only read part of the story at this link.  Roy was kind enough to send me the full article, so I’ll summarize the key points of the development for you and then leave you with the only potentially relevant thought I can manage today.

The story explains that the Florida Supreme Court has issued a show cause order to TIKD to require it to respond to the Florida Bar’s petition over UPL allegations and to show cause why the Florida Supreme Court should not enter an order barring its services.

The article contains a very confident sounding quote from the owner of TIKD, likely more confident than he should be under the circumstances that reads as follows:

“What a stunning waste of time and resources,” Riley said. “For nearly a year we have been asking the bar to tell us what aspects of our business they find objectionable, so we could work to address
their concerns. Rather than having a conversation, they chose this route and now have filed a vague complaint, lacking any basis in case law.”

“Nonetheless, we’re glad the issue is out of the bar’s hands, and into a realm where actual facts matter. We remain confident Tikd and its affiliated lawyers are fully in compliance with Florida law,
and are hopeful we can finally resolve this and move on,” he added.

I remain skeptical that TIKD itself is truly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, though I suspect the Florida Supreme Court may find otherwise.  I’m as confident as Mr. Riley sounds above that what they are is a referral service that violates the current version of the Florida Bar’s ethics rules and that lawyers doing business with TIKD simply cannot do so and comply with the current Florida rules.

I’ve written in the past about my thoughts in general about being open to taking hard looks at revising existing ethics rules that touch on these issues, but for now the rules say what they say.

What I’m puzzling over is this:  is there a way of describing what this traffic ticket app company does that is sufficiently analogous enough to what insurance companies do to justify its existence even under current ethics rules?

At some level, isn’t what this company is offering in the equivalent of ticket insurance without a deductible?  They select the lawyer to represent you, they pay the lawyer to represent you, and if a “judgment” goes down against you for which you are liable – a fine for violation of the traffic laws — they pay it.

If we let insurance companies do something very much like that, then what’s the difference here?

Friday follow up: This week flu by.

Apologies for the lack of content this week, been down with the flu since Monday afternoon.

Two short items by way of follow up today worth highlighting with a hope of resuming this blog’s normal, sub-par output next week.

First, word has come out that the former Florida Bar President made the subject of the disqualification motion in the TIKD litigation has now withdrawn from representing TIKD.  You can read an update about that here.

Second, in complaining a week or so ago about the scope of Tennessee’s RPC 5.5(h) prohibition on employing suspended lawyers, I made reference to the fact that the rule could arguably apply even to a lawyer serving an administrative suspension.  This month brings news of the relatively rare occurrence of a lawyer actually getting disciplined for continuing to practice while administratively suspended in Tennessee.  You can read the release from our Board of Professional Responsibility about a lawyer getting publicly censured for continuing to go into the office for 7 business days while suspended for purely administrative reasons relating to not securing the necessary CLE requirements here.  These materials don’t mention whether the lawyer actually even knew during those 7 business days of their administrative suspension.  Presumably so or the public censure, which already sounds overly harsh, would be extremely harsh.  Under RPC 5.5(h), if she were employed by other lawyers during those seven days, they could potentially face discipline as well.

Which is bananas.

And, as to flu, I think I was probably fortunate to only get the B strain.  Reports this week about the extent of things are bad on that front.

So, stay safe.

Husband can’t control his wife, gets disciplined.

Sometimes titles for posts are tough to come up with, sometimes they are far too easy.  This is one of the latter and is offered both with a spirit of tongue-in-cheek silliness and because it is a truly perfect seven-word summary of a recent disciplinary case of note.

It is, of note, at least for discussion purposes, because it appears to be: (1) the right outcome; and (2) a quintessential example of the harm that my state, Tennessee, seeks to prevent through the existence of a very specific, black-letter rule.  Despite that, I’d still like to explain why I happen to think that the Tennessee rule, in particular, is still too harsh and the wrong public policy approach.

The case comes out of Illinois and involves a public censure handed down earlier this month.  The ABA Journal online wrote an article about it a couple of days ago but here’s the pithier description of events published by the Illinois disciplinary authorities:

Mr. Niew, who was licensed in 1972, was censured. His wife, Kathleen Niew, an Illinois lawyer, was disbarred in 2013 for misappropriating $2.34 million belonging to a client who she represented in a real estate matter. After her disbarment, Mr. Niew failed to ensure that his wife no longer maintained a presence in their law office and he also failed to supervise his associate, to prevent that associate from aiding Ms. Niew in the unauthorized practice of law.

The ABA Journal piece points out a bit more detail, explaining that the wife was disbarred in November 2013 but kept coming into the law offfice she had shared with her husband multiple days a week until June 2014.  You can get the highly unfortunate details of the wife’s wrongdoing at the ABA Journal piece.  (Spoiler:  financial wrongdoing.)

The reason that the husband’s role in the wife continuing to come into the office was, itself, a disciplinary problem is that Illinois has a Supreme Court Rule, Rule 764b, that bars a lawyer who has been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law for at least six months from maintaining a presence in any office where law is practiced.  That Illinois rule also imposes a direct duty on other lawyers affiliated with the disbarred or suspended lawyer to stake steps to insure that the rule is complied with.

This kind of rule, which we also have in our ethics rules in Tennessee, is one that I and other Tennessee lawyers have described to people as a rule that means, if you’ve been disbarred or suspended, you can’t even push a broom in a law office as a way of trying to make a living.

In Tennessee, over the objections of the Tennessee Bar Association, our Supreme Court put such a prohibition housed in our rules as RPC 5.5(h).  It acts similarly to the Illinois rule by completely barring involvement in anything surrounding the practice of law for disbarred or suspended lawyers, but it is solely focused on the other lawyers involved and is actually even more harsh than the Illinois rule in two respects.

The Tennessee rule reads:

(h) A lawyer or law firm shall not employ or continue the employment of a disbarred or suspended lawyer as an attorney, legal consultant, law clerk, paralegel or in any other position of a quasi legal nature.

It is harsher than its Illinois counterpart, first, because it applies (on its face) with respect to a lawyer suspended for any period of time not just for six months or more.  Arguably even where a lawyer has been suspended for only 30 days or, possibly, even when they are subject to merely an administrative suspension.  Second, it is harsher because it is not just limited to a prohibition on being physically present in a law office but applies to any employment of such a person by a lawyer or law firm.

In Illinois, for example, the public policy objections I have to such a harsh rule might be less pointed beccause the ability to work from home or otherwise remotely be employed to perform certain tasks could be a saving grace against the otherwise absolute barrier to opportunities for lawyer rehabilitation.  But not so in Tennessee.

While the Niew Illinois case that has gotten some attention certainly appears to demonstrate the right outcome for its circumstances, I still think rules like Tennessee’s are far too harsh.  Problems posed by the classic scenarios that such rules seek to prohibit can otherwise be addressed through provisions in RPC 5.5 that make it unethical for a lawyer to assist someone else in the unauthorized practice of law.

It seems that there ought to be exceptions to such an absolute prohibition; exceptions that it would be hard for reasonable people to argue against.  One could readily construct a hypothetical involving a lawyer who gets herself suspended because of problems associated with the handling of client funds or other deficiencies in their ability to handle the business aspects of the practice of law, but who might be an incredibly gifted researcher and writer.  Seems unduly harsh to foreclose that person’s ability to continue to contribute and benefit clients of other lawyers through performing such work for other lawyers with no access to client funds or even to the clients in question while rehabilitating themselves on their deficiencies.

At present, there simply is not.  The only potential route to rehabilitiation that could be available in Tennessee, apropos if for no other reason than our being called “the Volunteer state,” is that it does look like a disbarred or suspended lawyer could take on such assignments for free.

If racism is disqualifying for a juror, why not for an aspiring lawyer?

Nothing like the day after a holiday weekend to pose a difficult, potentially controversial, question, right?  But when the holiday weekend in question is one to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this particular question is certainly topical.

This is a post I have had rattling around inside of my head since this I read this weighty article from The Huffington Post.  Now, I know, for many, HP is not thought of as a place for weighty articles, but this one really fits the bill.

The article’s title is “Should White Supremacists Be Allowed to Practice Law?”  The article delves into the nature of the question and elaborates a bit on the underlying concept that people who wish to be admitted to the bar in any given state not only have to demonstrate competence in the law but also must satisfy “character and fitness” requirements to be issued a law license at all.

The HP article does an effective job of examining the thorny, and obviously problematic, nature of the problem with staking out a position that someone’s ideas or thoughts alone should prohibit them from being permitted to pursue a chosen profession – a profession for which they have otherwise demonstrated qualifications by passing the required tests and satisfying the objective criteria.  But — given that fundamental principles of white supremacy (for example) can be shown to go beyond mere beliefs and into promised actions and conduct that are at least inherently discriminatory and taken to the logical conclusion of the movement are even genocidal — the slope being argued over does not sound all that slippery in such a context.

Further, the slope our profession has to wrestle with on such a question is inherently slippery because of how subjective the admission standards are as to character and fitness as a concept — the idea that existing lawyers will evaluate the candidacy of applicants for admission to see if they have the requisite “character” and “fitness” to be a member of the profession.  Moreover, as someone who has represented quite a few folks in bar admission proceedings, I can tell you that the admissions process often creates seemingly ridiculous barriers to entry labelled as character and fitness matters.  Traffic offenses and underage drinking as just a few common examples where law school graduates frequently find themselves having to respond to orders to show cause why they shouldn’t be denied admission.

The notion that an avowed white supremacist would be deemed to be an acceptable candidate to practice law from a character standpoint when a person who struggled with a “lead foot” throughout college gets extra scrutiny seems laughable.

For a little more context, here are the admission standards in Tennessee from which character and fitness questions spring:

Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7 requires the Board of Law Examiners to decide that an applicant

has demonstrated the reputation and character that in the opinion of the Board indicates no reasonable basis for substantial doubts that the applicant will adhere to the standards of conduct  required of attorneys in this State.  (Section 1.03(d))

The same rule elaborates in more detail what this means:

(a) An applicant shall not be admitted if in the judgment of the Board there is reasonable doubt as to that applicant’s honesty, respect for the rights of others, and adherence to and obedience to the Constitution and laws of Tennessee and the United States as to justify the conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys in this State. Any conduct which would constitute grounds for discipline if engaged in by an attorney in this State shall be considered by the Board in making its evaluation of the character of an applicant.  (Section 6.01)

If espousing an inherent belief that one race is inherently superior to other races and that certain races are so inferior that the world would be better off if they were eliminated from society is not something that would “justify a conclusion that such applicant is not likely to adhere to the duties and standards of conduct imposed on attorneys,” then what exactly is the point of referencing “respect for the rights of others” in such a standard?

And, if even you are inclined to agree that would move the needle in the direction of being unfit, then you probably still might have more difficulty agreeing with the idea that racism is not inherently as bad as white supremacy and is more just an idea or state of mind that should not be regulated and, thus, there can be no cogent argument made that just being a racist should prevent someone from being issued a law license.  After all, as noted above, in Tennessee, the standard requires the Board of Law Examiners to only look to conduct of an applicant which – if undertaken by someone who is already a lawyer could trigger discipline.  You would be hard pressed to find many instances of lawyer discipline imposed against a lawyer merely for holding dear to a belief system, no matter how ignorant or odious.

And, yet, quite recently, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Tharpe v. Sellers that reversed and remanded a case over a certificate of appealability in a death penalty case that turns on whether racist statements made by one of the jurors who voted for death could justify the reopening of habeas corpus proceedings premised upon arguments that improper racial animus infected the jury deliberations.

Although the analogy is admittedly not a perfect one, it seems very difficult to feel very comfortable with the idea that racism on the part of a member of the jury is unacceptable but that letting someone with the same views become a lawyer and, thus, be in the position of getting to routinely strike citizens from being selected to be on juries because of the color of their skin is just part of the system.

And, no this is not intended to be an advocacy piece for the proposed rule revision in Tennesee that I’ve written about before, because these questions are extremely ripe ones in my jurisdiction and other jurisdictions under even existing ethics rules.  In Tennessee and elsewhere, the rules already prohibit lawyers, regardless whether they are representing clients or not at the time, from engaging in conduct that is prejudical to the administration of justice.  (RPC 8.4.)

So, I guess the true question to struggle with is this:  Does empowering a racist by conferring a license to practice law on them something that is inherently prejudicial to the administration of justice?