I’d long thought that the ethical issues associated with representing clients held in Guantanamo would be the most flagrant example in my lifetime of our government purposefully making it impossible for lawyers to fulfill obligations to their clients. Sad to say that I may just have been wrong about that. (P.S. I only started this blog in 2015 and have never really written about the dilemma created for lawyers trying to represent detainees in Guantanamo because it felt like most everything worth saying about it had already been said by others. You can still read one the best legal journal articles providing an overview of the dilemma here. But, it is worth noting that the absurdities of the overall situation have not dissipated and it can be argued that the situation for defense lawyers in those proceedings is now worse than it has ever been.)
The situation created by our government’s forcible separation of families seeking asylum at our border has created a dynamic that might be just as bad or, perhaps, worse.
This weekend I had the chance to read some about the bizarre scenes playing out now in Immigration Court in our country. Perhaps the two most poignant accounts are this piece on a 1-year old who had to appear, albeit with a lawyer, and this video recreation using actual immigration court transcripts of how surreal this whole thing is.
Because this is a blog about legal ethics, I will limit what I have to say to the perniciousness of the impact this policy has on lawyers who are attempting to represent an immigration client — which while a horrible situation is about seventh on the list of importance in terms of the overall horribleness (which includes but is not limited to all of the children who have to deal with immigration court without a lawyer at all.
A lawyer has an ethical obligation to provide competent representation to a client (see RPC 1.1), a lawyer has an ethical duty to communicate with the client as to information that is important for the client to make informed decisions about the representation (see RPC 1.4), a lawyer has an ethical duty – even when dealing with a client with diminished capacity — to try to treat the client as much as is possible like a client with normal capacity (see RPC 1.14). Almost all of those ethical duties become close to impossible to accomplish when the lawyer’s client is one to five years of age, not allowed to see their parents, not sure why they aren’t allowed to see their parents any longer, unable to effectively communicate about complicated legal questions even in their own language much less in the language the lawyer speaks, and, for the most part, simply altogether unable to appreciate what is going on at the moment. And, none of what I just said even takes into account the possibility that the client is also being forcibly drugged to a point of sedation in order to try to address crippling anxiety brought about by the forced separation from their parent or parents.
Opportunities to discuss RPC 1.14 in a meaningful way are not all that frequent, but one of the big things that rule seeks to do is to insure that the lawyer try to empower the client as much as possible despite the client’s diminished capacity as much as possible. It does this front-and-center in the black letter of the rule stating:
(a) When a client’s capacity to make adequately considered decisions in connection with a representation is diminished, whether because of minority . . . or for some other reason, the lawyer shall, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client.
Thus, for example, it does not trumpet pursuing the appointment of a conservator or guardian for a client as a primary course of action. Instead, it establishes in the rule that such efforts are appropriate only when there is something more going on than just the fact of diminished capacity:
(b) When the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial, or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action, including consulting with individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client and, in appropriate cases, seeking the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator, or guardian.
Yet, in the situation these immigration counsel are grappling with, it seems impossible to figure out how a lawyer could do anything other than want to seek the appointment of a guardian or guardian ad litem to assist the client with the decision-making that has to occur. Of course, immigration courts – unlike other courts in our judicial branch — are creatures of the executive branch. When the head of the executive branch is publicly railing against due process at all in the immigration courts, one fears that an already nearly impossible task for the lawyer will be made all the worse by a system that will be less-than-friendly toward any efforts to have such a person appointed at all.
In Tennessee, we have a version of RPC 1.14 that goes a further step in Comment  – and would likely describe much of what lawyers in this situation will have to do by necessity — act on an emergency basis on behalf of a client with seriously diminished capacity without meaningful input:
 If the health, safety, or a financial interest of a person with seriously diminished capacity is threatened with imminent and irreparable harm, a lawyer may take legal action on behalf of such a person even though the person is unable to establish a client-lawyer relationship or to make or express considered judgments about the matter, when the person or another acting in good faith on that person’s behalf has consulted with the lawyer. Even in such a situation, however, the lawyer should not act unless the lawyer reasonably believes that the person has no other lawyer, agent, or other representative available. The lawyer should take legal action on behalf of the person only to the extent reasonably necessary to maintain the status quo or otherwise avoid imminent and irreparable harm….
The only other hope for the situation is that the lawyer representing the child may be able to count on the immigration judge to try to make every effort to accommodate and account for this inherent failure in the process. Again, given the dynamic going on in the system itself right now, this does not seem like a very realistic hope. Certainly not one on which the lawyers involved can count.