An open letter to State Bar of Texas

Dear Sir or Ma’am:

It’s been a tough year, but I hope this email finds you staying safe. I’m writing to urge you to give some real thought to whether your rule on the ability to impose an “interim” suspension on a Texas lawyer goes as far as it needs to in order to be able to protect the public.

As I understand it, the current Texas rules provide the following as what is required in order to be able to obtain an immediate interim suspension of an attorney:

PART XIV. INTERIM SUSPENSION

14.01. Irreparable Harm to Clients: Should the Chief Disciplinary Counsel reasonably believe based upon investigation of a Complaint that an attorney poses a substantial threat of irreparable harm to clients or prospective clients and be authorized or directed to do so by the Commission, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel shall seek the immediate interim suspension of the attorney. The Commission shall file a petition with a district court of proper venue alleging substantial threat
of irreparable harm, and the district court shall, if the petition alleges facts that meet the evidentiary standard in Rule 14.02, set a hearing within ten days. If the Commission, at the hearing, meets the evidentiary standard and burden of proof as established in Rule 14.02, the court shall enter an order without requiring bond, immediately suspending the attorney pending the final disposition of the Disciplinary Proceedings or the Disciplinary Action based on the conduct causing the harm. The matter shall thereafter proceed in the district court as in matters involving temporary injunctions under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. If a temporary injunction is entered, the court may appoint a custodian under Part XIII. If, at the conclusion of all Disciplinary Proceedings and Disciplinary Actions, the Respondent is not found to have committed Professional Misconduct, the immediate interim suspension may not be deemed a “Sanction” for purposes of insurance applications or any other purpose.


14.02. Burden of Proof and Evidentiary Standard: The Commission has the burden to prove the case for an interim suspension by a preponderance of the evidence. If proved by a preponderance of the evidence, any one of the following elements establishes conclusively that the attorney poses a substantial threat of irreparable harm to clients or prospective clients:

A. Conduct by an attorney that includes all of the elements of a Serious Crime as defined in these rules.
B. Three or more acts of Professional Misconduct, as defined in subsections (a) (2) (3) (4) (6) (7) (8) or (10) of Rule 8.04 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of
Professional Conduct, whether or not actual harm or threatened harm is
demonstrated.
C. Any other conduct by an attorney that, if continued, will probably cause harm to clients or prospective clients.

Under this rule, your power is limited to issues that pose a threat of harm to clients or prospective clients. Normally, I’d agree that makes a certain amount of sense.

But here in Tennessee, our Board of Professional Responsibility is imbued with a broader power in this regard. Our rule reads as follows:

12.3.  Temporary Suspension. 
      (a) On petition of  Disciplinary Counsel and supported by an affidavit or declaration under penalty of perjury demonstrating facts personally known to affiant showing that an attorney has misappropriated funds to the attorney’s own use, has failed to respond to the Board or Disciplinary Counsel concerning a complaint of misconduct, has failed to substantially comply with a Tennessee Lawyer Assistance Program monitoring agreement requiring mandatory reporting to Disciplinary Counsel pursuant to Section 36.1, or otherwise poses a threat of substantial harm to the public, the Court may issue an order with such notice as the Court may prescribe imposing temporary conditions of probation on said attorney or temporarily suspending said attorney, or both.
     (b) Any order of temporary suspension which restricts the attorney maintaining a trust account shall, when served on any bank maintaining an account against which said attorney may make withdrawals, serve as an injunction to prevent said bank from making further payment from such account or accounts on any obligation except in accordance with restrictions imposed by the Court. 
     (c) Any order of temporary suspension issued under this Rule shall preclude the attorney from accepting any new cases, unless otherwise provided in the order. An order of temporary suspension shall not preclude the attorney from continuing to represent existing clients during the first thirty days after the effective date of the order of temporary suspension, unless otherwise provided in the order; however, any fees tendered to such attorney during such thirty day period shall be deposited in a trust fund from which withdrawals may be made only in accordance with restrictions imposed by the Court.
     (d) The attorney may for good cause request dissolution or amendment of any such order of temporary suspension by filing in the Nashville office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court and serving on Disciplinary Counsel a Petition for Dissolution or Amendment.  Such petition for dissolution shall be set for immediate hearing before the Board or a panel.  The Board or panel shall hear such petition forthwith and file its report and recommendation to the Supreme Court with the utmost speed consistent with due process. There shall be no petition for rehearing.  Upon receipt of the foregoing report, the Court may modify its order if appropriate or continue such provision of the order as may be appropriate until final disposition of all pending disciplinary charges against said attorney.

In terms of the triggering events, the big differences it seems to me are that, in Tennessee, the Disciplinary Counsel does not have to wait on a complaint to act and can act if an attorney “otherwise poses a threat of substantial harm to the public.” Now, I readily admit that this power is one that I have taken issue with when used in Tennessee in some circumstances, but I’m still writing you this letter you will never read to suggest you might want to look into getting something like this power conferred upon you in Texas.

Why?

Well, you’ve got a couple of really big problems on your hands. I know Texas is known for bandying about that “everything is bigger in Texas” line of bragging, but this time it might really be true.

Problem #1 is named Sidney Powell. She’s on something of a crusade to demonstrate over this last month or so just how much of a threat of substantial harm to the public a Texas attorney can pose and not have the threat be directed at clients or potential clients. If you aren’t familiar with what she’s been up to lately, just try Googling her name (or, and I know this will sound silly at first, but you could also try Googling “Kraken”). I’ll give you a few minutes…

See? Between gaslighting thousands of people and scamming them into sending her cash, filing repeated meritless lawsuits, including plaintiffs in those lawsuits that she doesn’t actually represent and who haven’t consented to being included, engaging in rhetoric designed to stir up “militias” and vigilante acts of violence, and (well to be blunt) seeking to undermine democracy in our country itself, if she were a Tennessee lawyer …. I think we’d be at the substantial threat of harm to the public phase of things.

Problem #2 is … well admittedly this is going to be a bit awkward but … Ken Paxton, your current Texas Attorney General. Now, you might already be aware of his having been under a long-time Securities and Exchange Commission investigation (that’s now been dismissed) as well as some related state criminal charges, and you might even have caught the news that he is under FBI investigation for corruption because some of his former subordinates turned him in, but you might not have had a moment yet to hear of the fact that he took it upon himself today, in the name of the State of Texas, to file an original petition with the U.S. Supreme Court against multiple other states (Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Michigan) to seek to have the votes of literally millions of voters in those states thrown out as a way of trying to prevent the President-Elect from taking office.

Yeah, kind of staggering, right?

Technically, he’s at least doing better than Ms. Powell on competence as he’s also filed a bill asking the U.S. Supreme Court for leave to proceed with the Petition, but still … doing better than Ms. Powell on competence is a really low bar.

You can get access to all of the Texas Supreme Court filings here. But, for convenience, here’s the Conclusion paragraph of the petition:

This Court should first administratively stay or temporarily restrain the Defendant States from voting in the electoral college until further order of this Court and then issue a preliminary injunction or stay against their doing so until the conclusion of this case on the merits. Alternatively, the Court should reach the merits, vacate the Defendant States’ elector
certifications from the unconstitutional 2020 election results, and remand to the Defendant States’ legislatures pursuant to 3 U.S.C. § 2 to appoint electors.

So, oh also, many reports are speculating (because of the aforementioned SEC and FBI investigations) that Mr. Paxton is doing this not because of any belief that the claim is anything other than a frivolous one, but to see if he can get one of those pardons the outgoing President is throwing around these days.

Theoretically, your existing rule might get you there with respect to the Attorney General since this kind of buffoonery does threaten his client – the State of Texas — but it sure would be easier if you only had to show that he poses a threat of substantial harm to the public.

Also, the suspension of a state law license wouldn’t be pardonable by the President, so that’d be a bit of a nice bonus too.

Rotting from the top down.

Being a lawyer is hard. It is certainly not the hardest thing in the world to be, but it is hard. Lawyers have lots of obligations and lots of stress. Again, there are many who have things worse, of course.

Among those “lots of obligations” are obligations to supervise those who work for them that are not also lawyers. For lawyers who practice as solo practitioners, they might not have anyone in that category, or they might have one or two such people to supervise. Lawyers who work in firms may have more, sometimes, many more.

Government lawyers can have blurry lines regarding who all is within their realm of supervisory responsibility. Attorneys who work as prosecutors can, for example, have to evaluate not just their supervisory responsibility over direct staff but whether other law enforcement officers’ conduct is something they have to be concerned with from a supervisory perspective.

In any particular jurisdiction, the ethical issues regarding all of this are primarily governed by whatever version of Model Rule 5.3 has been adopted. Other law can come into play as well.

Today’s post isn’t exactly about how all of that works, today’s post is an attempt to suss out how things like this keep happening with respect to the way that agents of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents are doing their jobs and engaging in deceptive, and illegal, conduct. In a different time, the instinct would be to say that the answer to questions of “Where were the lawyers?” would be that they were actively excluded by the other law enforcement officials so as not to know. But then there are things like this that also seem to keep happening.

So, at the moment, the simplest answer I can figure out for how this keeps happening is laid out in the contents of this editorial written by a career Justice Department prosecutor who resigned after 36-plus years of service.

Lawyers out there losing their goddamn minds.

Apologies in advance for the fact that today’s content is going to be something of a mishmash or stream-of-consciousness type of presentation, but it’s where the brain is at based on the events of the last 48-72 hours. (Loyal readers will likely wonder why I think a mishmash is any different than the normal presentation.)

I’m pretty sure none of us expected in 2020 to be living both 1918 and 1968 simultaneously. I know I didn’t. I have a wide variety of political thoughts about our situation, but if you are interested in those go find me on Twitter.

The fragile and incendiary nature of our circumstances in the United States though have recently resulted in a variety of instances of lawyers making incredibly poor decisions. I struggled a bit with whether any of the situations merited posting about or if bringing extra attention (Ha! As if I have that kind of power or reach…) was unhelpful.

Then, yesterday, through a “professional” listserv I participate in I witnessed a lawyer call for the assassination of public officials and incarcerating people without trials and for as long as it would take for them to contract COVID-19. I also watched a different lawyer throw wholehearted support to the first lawyer’s writings and sentiments. That second lawyer though might just be salty about having previously been criticized among the same group for having disparaged an entire generation of lawyers. Those two instances did drive home the point to me that a much larger percentage of lawyers then you might think are doing what the title of this post suggests.

More instances of lawyers reacting very poorly to the current environment have been bombarding us in the legal news of late.

You’ve certainly read about the two lawyers, one of whom work(ed) for a very large law firm, who have been arrested for throwing an incendiary device into an unoccupied police car. Perhaps you’ve also read about the Florida prosecutor who just got fired over a racist Facebook post that involved comparing protestors to animals. You might also have read about the lawyer in Vermont who was immediately and temporarily suspended over pulling a gun on a store clerk in a dispute over social distancing.

But I really, truly hope you’ve been doing your reading on what – in terms of historical ramifications – was the worst of the recent lawyer conduct. If the latest reports are correct, it was the Attorney General of the United States (someone who I’ve written about repeatedly in the past with respect to defiance of his ethical obligations) who approved/authorized the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors in D.C. in order to provide a clear pathway for the current occupant of the White House to make this video. If you’d like a different video to show you just a snippet of what it took to make that video, try here. It continues to be difficult to wrap my head around the fact that we live in a situation in which the fact that this man continues to hold the office of Attorney General is, itself, prejudicial to the administration of justice in a way that runs afoul of RPC 8.4(d).

This same lawyer also appears to be redirecting other federal law enforcement resources, including the DEA, into expanded roles that are impossible to view as anything other than highly threatening to the exercise of civil liberties and First Amendment rights of assembly and petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

In fairness, to Mr. Barr, it is not fair to say he’s lost his goddamned mind because of the ongoing circumstances. This seems to be who he has always been.

When you’re right, you’re right. Even when you’re Right.

I’ve written a bit in the past about the differences between unified bars, like what exists in North Carolina, and voluntary state bar associations such as what we have in Tennessee. (If you are uninterested in clicking on either of those links, as a refresher, the fundamental difference is that unified bars require that anyone who is licensed to practice in the state is a member of the state bar association.)

Among the biggest differences are the risks attendant for unified bars when they take various actions, including issuing ethics opinions, that they are treated as a government entity.

A case working its way through the Texas courts emphasizes another of those risks – the risk that engaging in efforts that bar leadership may believe to be in the best interest of society will be challenged by members of the mandatory bar association on First Amendment grounds.

Those risks have been made starker by the 2018 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME.

Texas is a state with an unified bar and exactly such a lawsuit has been brought by Texas lawyers over the State Bar of Texas having programs involving diversity initiatives, access to justice, and programs seeking to prevent the deportation of immigrants. This matter came back into the legal news this week because the Attorney General of Texas has taken the somewhat unusual step of filing an amicus brief to side with the lawyers rather than with the government agency under fire.

You can read the Texas AG’s amicus brief here. But, in sum, the argument it makes is that the funding of speech and policies with which one disagrees using bar dues you are required to pay is coerced speech and, in light of what Janus has said about that, is a violation of the First Amendment.

Now, long-time readers of this space will know I’m not much of a fan of the current Texas Attorney General, and I have little doubt that this particular elected official would never have gotten involved in this fashion if the State Bar of Texas had been taking positions more in keeping with his personal politics. (For what it is worth, my own biases had me thinking that even before I read the part of the ABA Journal article pointing out that one of the plaintiffs to whom the AG is lending his support is a conservative group with a PAC that has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to past campaigns of the AG as well as his wife who happens to be a state senator).

But none of that changes the ultimate fact here that – because of the downsides attendant with the unified bar structure – he’s probably on the side that has the stronger arguments under the First Amendment issue as interpreted by Janus, at least as to the hot-button issue of immigration reform. (I think it is much tougher sledding to claim that fighting for access to justice is not a core regulatory purpose of a bar association sufficient to satisfy exacting First Amendment scrutiny.)

This latest development in the Texas litigation is also further proof, in my opinion, that the voluntary bar association model used by Tennessee is such a vastly better approach overall.

The TBA has repeatedly been able to take positions that I personally view are on the right side of history on a variety of issues with the only risk being that if it somehow gets viewed as too political by someone who disagrees with what it is advocating for then it might lose that lawyer as a member. I would imagine, most of the time, people don’t decide to quit because, on the whole, our voluntary bar association is a worthwhile thing to be part of.

For example, I’m not at all pleased that the TBA has invited (and I’m presuming is paying) Ken Starr to come speak at its upcoming annual convention. I think Starr ought to be treated as persona non grata for a variety of reasons. His most recent hypocrisy regarding attacks on the contents of the Mueller Report as “too detailed” is just the latest example. His utter failure to do the right thing in his time at Baylor is likely, by far, the biggest reason I wish the TBA wouldn’t want him to be any part of any of its programming.

I’m disappointed, but I’m not going to quit my membership over it. I will simply refuse to attend the convention as my small act of demonstrating my distaste with the decision.

But, most importantly, I could never sue about the fact that my dues are being used to fund such an invitation because we’re not an unified bar. If we were, then under Janus I might just have a claim and that’s not at all a good thing for bar associations to have to deal with.

Three updates for you on this election-year President’s Day.

Given that there isn’t a lot going on in the news that relates to legal issues, I feel obligated to offer lawyers something to read.  (I don’t think I’ve ever gone on record here about how badly I wish someone would create and implement a sarcasm font upon which all users could agree.  Maybe it would be a way to use comic sans where everyone would be ok with it?)

Back around Thanksgiving, I wrote about a Virginia federal court ruling that laid the framework for a future decision about whether a particular provision in a law firm operating agreement violated RPC 5.6.  Specifically, the provision required a departing shareholder who goes on to practice law in competition with the firm to forfeit half of their equity interest in the firm.  I concluded my original post by speculating that the outcome would ultimately hinge on how the court interpreted a paragraph in Comment [2] of D.C.’s version of the rule.  Sure enough, the court has now ruled, and its ruling did hinge to a significant extent upon application of that language as quoted in this piece from the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual.  Interestingly though, much of the fight in the case actually came down to whether half of the shareholder’s equity interest was even a “substantial” financial penalty at all.

In the face of an argument from the firm that it wasn’t substantial because it was significantly less than the departing lawyer’s salary at his new destination, and expert testimony that the fragility of law firms should allow provisions forfeiting equity to avoid a “death spiral” when owners leave unexpectedly, the court looked only at the penalty in its own context:

Moreover, the practical effect of the Firm’s forfeiture clause is to penalize withdrawing members who wish to continue to represent even one of the Firm’s clients by depriving them of a previously accrued equity interest to which they otherwise would be entitled.  When Moskowitz left the Firm, he faced a choice: receive the full value of his [ownership interest] and turn down his clients who sought his continued representation, or forfeit fifty percent of his equity interest in the Firm and continue to represent his clients’ interests. There is a clear disincentive attached to the latter option.

Update part two & three – I’ve also tried to keep up with events in Pennsylvania and Texas as they unfold with respect to the fates of their top law enforcement officers, both of whom face criminal prosecution.

In Pennsylvania, the sitting Attorney General had something of a mixed bag of recent events.  Her effort to have her law license reinstated denied, but she managed on a first vote to survive being removed from office by the Pennsylvania Senate.

As to the Texas AG, you may recall that back when I first posted about any of this, I mentioned a disciplinary complaint that had nothing to do with, and predated in time, the indictment against him.  (Though unlike the events made the subject of the indictment, the disciplinary complaint actually related to the AG’s conduct in office.) Although there have not been any recent events regarding the indictment to catch my attention, there has now been news that the disciplinary complaint which originally was headed toward dismissal, has now been reinstated and will move forward over the AG’s advice to public officials that they could freely disregard the authority of the United States Supreme Court.

 

Professional death penalty meted out to former DA over death penalty case misconduct

During my 2013 Ethics Roadshow, I had a rare opportunity to highlight three instances of former government prosecutors receiving public discipline over past misconduct.  Such events are so rare that for three high-profile ones to happen in the same year seemed quite remarkable.  One of those three involved a Texas prosecutor who was disbarred for his conduct in putting a man in jail for almost a quarter of a century for a crime he didn’t commit.  Those kinds of stories are awful to hear and, while knowing that the lawyer is ultimately made to suffer for the wrongdoing, it doesn’t ever constitute anything of a happy ending as the stripping of a law license from someone long after the fact does little to offset the abject awfulness of what the wrongfully-imprisoned individual is made to endure.

You never actually want to hear history repeating itself in such a fashion but chalk another one up for Texas.  The events described in this piece discussing the disbarment of another former Texas district attorney are of a nature to simply erode faith in the judicial system even if the end result now is disbarment for the prosecutor’s role in putting a man, later freed and declared innocent by a special prosecutor on death row.  Given that the underlying case received a high-level of publicity though so that the public was already in-the-know about the breakdown of the system, it is another step in the right direction for the public to at least see the disciplinary system get to the right end result.

And, while when you hear the headline version of events that the lawyer is now being disbarred for misconduct committed in connection with a 1992 trial flowing from six murders committed in 1986, it makes it seem like the wheels of justice turn quite slowly to say the least.  But, on the disciplinary side, things moved quite swiftly as the wrongly-imprisoned gentlemen filed the disciplinary complaint against the former prosecutor (who had left office was back in 2000) only in 2014.