Sunday, March 31, 2019

New statute in New York creates a commission to review prosecutorial misconduct

Long time readers of this blog know that I have posted a lot of stories about prosecutorial misconduct over the years (go here and scroll down).  And in many of those stories, I have often complained that courts do not do enough to confront the problem.

Today, for a change, I am reporting that one state is at least trying.  As reported in Jurist:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Wednesday to create a commission to review prosecutorial misconduct by District Attorneys.  This is the second version of the bill that the governor has signed. The first version of the bill was challenged by a coalition of district attorneys under separation of powers concerns between the judiciary and legislature, but was halted among promises to revise the bill. The governor and state legislature made changes regarding the 11 appointments to the commission. The original version allowed the legislature to appoint all members of the Commission, and the bill signed on Wednesday allows for appointments from the governor, legislative party members, and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. The commission will review potential misconduct of state prosecutors and impose necessary sanctions. The panel can subpoena witnesses and ask for relevant records to conduct its investigation. Upon a finding of misconduct, prosecutors can be sanctioned ranging from public censure to being removed by the governor. Prosecutors will also be able to challenge the panel’s decisions on an appeal to the Appellate Division of the NY’s Supreme Court.  The new version of the bill is still expected to face due process and equal protection challenges for expanding the power and authority of the state judiciary.
You can read the text of the bill here.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Devin Nunes files lawsuit for $250 million against Twitter; does it violate the rules against frivolous suits?

By now, I am sure you have heard all the jokes about the lawsuit filed by Rep. Devin Nunes.  If not, here is the bottom line: Rep. Devin Nunes has sued Twitter, some satire Twitter accounts, and a real political commentator for a variety of "offenses" including defamation based on allegations that anyone with a basic understanding of the law should know would not support a claim for defamation.  He is asking for $250 million in compensation.  The defamation claim is frivolous.

Of course, frivolous lawsuits are not new, but this is the same Devin Nunes who co-sponsored the Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act and who once voted for a House Amendment "to express a sense of Congress that free speech should be protected."

But, my question for the readers of this blog is this:  if the claims are so obviously frivolous, what was the lawyer who filed the complaint thinking?  Are the rules (both in civil procedure and professional responsibility codes) not enough to discourage filing of frivolous complaints?

For a detailed analysis of the complaint, go to TechDirt.

You can read more comments in ABA Journal, and The Daily Beast.

For the jokes I mentioned above, you can go here, and here for some examples.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission: "Indiana AG's party behavior violated 'heightened duty of ethical conduct'... "

The ABA Journal is reporting that an ethics complaint filed by the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission accuses Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill of inappropriately touching an Indiana lawmaker and three legislative staff members at a bar party, where he also made “rude and sexually suggestive comments.”  More interestingly, according to the complaint the AG “holds a position of extreme public trust,” and as a government lawyer he has “a heightened duty of ethical conduct.”

The allegations are alarming and I have no problem finding the conduct, if true, is totally unacceptable.

Yet, I do have a problem with the notion that certain lawyers have a "heightened" duty of ethical conduct.  Where does that come from?  Which lawyers are those?  Can someone point me to the rule or legal precedent which creates different levels of duties when it comes to ethical behavior?  I'd like to take a look at them to see if that classification can be justified.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Murder conviction reversed because of failure to object to prosecutors obviously wrong statements to jury as to the meaning of "beyond a reasonable doubt"

The Georgia Supreme Court has vacated and remanded the murder conviction of two parents accused of the crime based on evidence that their healthy newborn returned to the hospital within hours with fatal injuries.

The defendants appealed arguing ineffective assistance of counsel and the court found that the record did not provide sufficient evident for the court to apply the needed analysis to decide that claim.

More interestingly, the court discussed mistakes by both defense counsel and the prosecutor.  The prosecutor made improper and obviously wrong comments during closing argument about the meaning of "reasonable doubt" but defense counsel did not object.  The prosecutor's statement was as follows:
The Judge will charge you on reasonable doubt. Just keep in mind, and he will charge you, reasonable doubt does not mean beyond all doubt. It does not mean to a mathematical certainty. Which means we don’t have to prove that ninety percent. You don’t have to be ninety percent sure. You don’t have to be eighty percent sure. You don’t have to be fifty-one percent sure. It does not mean to a mathematical certainty.  And it does not mean beyond a shadow of a doubt. That’s just something the TV made up. It’s actually beyond a reasonable doubt. And that would be a doubt to which you can attach a reason. And I submit to you there is no reasonable doubt in this case.
Correctly, the court found both that the prosecutor's statement was wrong, and that there was no reason why a competent defense lawyer would not have objected.  Thus, the conviction could not be trusted:
 We also note our serious concern regarding the State’s closing argument during trial that flatly stated that proof beyond a reasonable doubt in this murder case does not require the jury to be even 51% sure— in other words, requires less than even the preponderance of the evidence required to meet the burden of proof in a civil case. That is obviously wrong. A case like this one, where there was no direct evidence to prove that Albert, Ashley, both of them, or neither of them killed McKenzy, could turn on reasonable doubt, and the verdict could be affected by an argument that 50-50 proof is good enough. And the trial court’s jury instruction on reasonable doubt — which in many cases may cure previous misstatements on the subject — did not cure the State’s obviously wrong argument here. The State’s point was to define reasonable doubt as not requiring the State to prove its case to “a mathematical certainty” – a phrase the State repeated twice. Of course, that is a phrase that occurs in the pattern instruction as well, and so when the trial court gave that instruction, it may well have been understood by the jury not as correcting the State’s error, but as reinforcing it. We cannot conceive of any good reason that a competent criminal defense attorney could have to fail to object to such an egregious misstatement of the law.
The Legal Profession blog has the story here.  You can read the opinion here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

New Jersey Supreme Court rejects mandatory malpractice insurance, embraces disclosure of coverage

George Conk, of Professional Responsibility: A Contemporary Approach, is reporting that the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued a "Notice to the Bar" adopting only some of the  recommendations of its Ad Hoc Committee on Attorney Malpractice Insurance.  Among its conclusions, it rejects the notion that all private practitioners should be obligated to have malpractice insurance. However, the court decided to retain a rule that all limited liability firms must carry insurance. Also, the Court announced that it will revisit at an unspecified date whether attorneys who lack coverage should be required to disclose that fact.


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Puerto Rico considers implementing IOLTA type rules; comments requested

As you probably know, IOLTA (short for "interest on lawyer trust accounts") programs are a mechanism for funding legal services for the poor. They require attorneys to place certain funds in interest generating accounts and banks to provide the interest to an agency that uses it to provide funds for legal services. All states and the District of Columbia have IOLTA programs. (About a decade ago, the program in DC became mandatory; see here).

Now comes news that the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico is considering adopting a similar program.  The text of it (in Spanish) is available here.  Comments should be sent to SecretariadoConferenciaJudicialyNotarial@ramajudicial.pr

If you want to learn more about the basics of IOLTA programs, you can listen to this short podcast.  Also, here is a short post on common mistakes lawyers make when handling an IOLTA account. If you want to read about the typical debate as to whether IOLTA programs are unconstitutional, you can take a look at this article, although that is only one of many, many others on the subject.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Texas lawsuit challenges mandatory membership in State Bar Association

Three Texas lawyers have filed a federal lawsuit claiming that mandatory membership in the State Bar of Texas violates their First Amendment right against coerced speech because the State Bar Association is using members’ mandatory dues, among other things, to fund programs that help undocumented immigrants seeking asylum, diversity initiatives and programs related to access to legal representation.  The case is called McDonald v. Longley and you can read the complaint here.

The question of the constitutionality of an integrated bar is not new.  In 1961, the US Supreme Court rejected a constitutional attack of mandatory membership in state bar associations in a case called Lathrop v. Donahue, 367 US 820 (1961). Also, in Cuyahoga Cty. Bar. Assn. v. Supeme Court of Ohio, 430 US 901 (1977), the Court summarily affirmed a lower court ruling on the constitutionality of a mandatory annual fee to support a state bar and disciplinary system. However, the free speech and free association arguments advanced in Lathrop were not rejected by the prevailing opinion. The Court simply found that more facts were needed for them to be considered. Other courts, however, have found that mandatory fees need to be related to bar organization matters.

Also, I discussed in some detail the back and forth history of the issue in Puerto Rico here.

The Texas Bar allows its members to opt out of supporting causes they do not believe in, but the plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege this system is inadequate.  At the very least, they argue, the system should be one in which the members would be required to "opt in" to avoid forcing them to fall into the default position of supporting causes they may or may not agree with.

Courthouse News and The ABA Journal have stories on the Texas lawsuit here and here.  According to the ABA Journal's story, the Texas lawsuit is among at least four current lawsuits that challenge mandatory state bar dues.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

District court grants (partially) motion to dismiss in case against prosecutors for using fake subpoenas and threats to trick witnesses and victims into cooperating with investigations

Long time readers of this blog know that I have reported on a number of cases documenting the misconduct of prosecutors in New Orleans.  (See here.)

Earlier this month, I heard about a new similar case making its way through the courts.  In this case, the plaintiffs allege that the Orleans Parish DA's office for years have been using fake subpoenas to coerce cooperation from witnesses and victims of crimes.  According to the allegations, prosecutors sent out bogus subpoenas -- bearing threats of fines and imprisonment -- to hundreds of witnesses, even though the subpoenas had not been approved by courts overseeing the ongoing prosecutions. The DA's office was simply cranking out fake subpoenas and hoping recipients would be too intimidated by the threat of jail time to question the veracity of the documents.

Several lawsuits followed, and the District Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana recently decided a motion to dismiss in one of them.  It held that the prosecutors had immunity for some of the alleged conduct, but not for all.  In fact, the court held that the individual defendants are not entitled to absolute immunity for their alleged role in creating or delivering “subpoenas” to victims and witnesses of crimes.

Typically, prosecutors have absolute immunity for their work as litigators, but only qualified immunity for their work as members of the law enforcement team, or as investigators.  It is often not easy to determine when one role ends and the other begins, which is why, as you would expect, there is quite a bit of case law on the subject.  But, in this case, it looks like the court thought that creating and delivering the fake subpoenas was part of the pre-litigation state of the building a case.

Evidently, the plaintiffs will still have to deal with the defense of qualified immunity, but it will be interesting to see how the case develops from now on.

You can read the court's opinion here.   Tech Dirt has a comment on the case here.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Lawyer gets sanctions for conduct as a landlord

I recently posted a few stories (here) that raise the same question:  under what circumstances is the state justified in imposing sanctions for conduct not related to the practice of law.

As I said in one of my recent posts, there is a case in Illinois that suggests the answer depends on whether the conduct leads to the conclusion that the attorney should not be trusted to do what attorney's do.

Using this analysis, it can be argued, for example, that a lawyer who who steals money should not be trusted to handle other people's money or affairs.

Now comes the story of a lawyer who put glue in his tenant’s locks and let the air out of her tires.  The lawyer's defense:  he was acting as a landlord, not as a lawyer.

So, is this conduct that should subject the lawyer to sanctions?  Under what rule?

If the conduct is "criminal", maybe the state can base the decision on rule 8.4(b) which considers misconduct to commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.  Is that a strong argument?

There are very few details about the decision of the Board, but from what I read it is not based on a specific rule.  Instead, the story cites the board as concluding that the conduct "exposed the legal profession to obloquy, contempt, censure and reproach” and that the conduct was “contrary to justice, ethics, honesty or good morals.”

This is an awful standard.  First, it is not based on any specific rule; second, it is based on the notion of either an "appearance of impropriety" or an effect on "the image of the profession" or both; and, third, it suggests that lawyers are bound by a duty to abide by "good morals."

I have never liked the use of a standard based on an appearance of impropriety or the image of the profession, which is such a vague and subjective standard.

In terms of the appearance of impropriety, there are essentially three approaches:  some states hold it should not be used as a standard for discipline; others hold that it can be used as a factor when used in addition to other more clearly defined standards; and others still hold it can be used as a factor on its own.

The approach that considers the appearance of impropriety as a stand-alone standard for discipline has been rejected by the drafters of the Model Rules repeatedly, but many courts continue to cite the phrase, either as a standard in and of itself or as a factor to be considered in addition to another standard. One would think that the use of the phrase has lost its popularity, but some research suggests the opposite. 

The notion of "good morals" is also problematic for many reasons.  First of all, who decides what is to be considered "good morals" and what is the basis for that decision?  This is the same problem when we deal with a standard based on the "dignity of the profession."  Who decides what is "dignified"?   This notion was rejected in an old case in Illinois that holds that "we do not intend to imply that attorneys must conform to conventional notions of morality in all questions of conscience and personal life."

Finally, if the question of the basis for possible discipline was not hard enough, then we get into the next problem:  what is the appropriate sanction for conduct outside the practice of law? (I wrote about this recently here.)

According to the story, the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board found misconduct but has not yet determined the appropriate discipline.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

You always risk disbarment

I always tell my students that because there are no penalties associated with specific rules of conduct, "you always risk disbarment."  It is true that more often that not, courts try to be consistent with previous cases involving similar conduct, but that does not eliminate the possibility that judges will disagree on what the proper sanction should be.

Interestingly, for some reason, these types of disagreements are common in cases involving conduct outside the practice of law.

I am writing about this today because I just saw a story about a recently admitted lawyer in Florida who was suspended for stealing $760.  The lawyer had been admitted to practice but was working as a cashier at the time.  Adding insult to injury, she claimed she stole the money because of the pressure of paying her law student debt.

In any case, back to the topic at hand, the case made its way up to the Florida Supreme Court, where the judges increased the sanction from ten days plus one year probation to a three year suspension.  One dissenting judge argued that was too harsh, but two others argued the lawyer should have been disbarred.

So how do you decide this case?  There is a case in Illinois that summarizes the analysis as asking whether the facts show that the conduct leads to the conclusion that the attorney should not be trusted to do what attorney's do.

Clearly, a person who steals money should not be trusted to handle other people's money or affairs.  But does that mean that the person should be disbarred in every case?  Does it matter that the amount stolen was relatively low? Does it matter that the lawyer had to pay her student debt (or that some have argued that the debt was caused by a school that allegedly took advantage of her)?

As the author of the article states, "Judges should be flexible on how lawyers should be disciplined. At the same time, practicing lawyers should be on notice that a relatively small crime can lead to disbarment which should deter them from committing similar acts."

In other words, "you always risk disbarment."

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Supreme Court adds to the definition of ineffective assistance of counsel

The US Supreme Court recently held (in a 6-3 opinion) that a lawyer renders ineffective assistance of counsel when he or she decides not to file an appeal of a guilty plea despite his client’s request, even if the client waived his right to appeal in the plea agreement.  The case is called Garza v. Idaho, and you can read the opinion here.  You can also find all the relevant documents in the case here.

I haven't had a chance to read the opinion myself, so I will limit the post to a link to this summary and analysis.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A few stories this week had to do with lawyers getting in trouble for things they said -- UPDATED

A prominent metro Detroit attorney is facing new claims of professional misconduct for allegedly mouthing off to a young female prosecutor and then, in a Facebook rant, misrepresenting what happened.  Here is the story.

The Florida Bar obtained the emergency suspension of a lawyer who attacked opposing counsel on social media.  You can read more about this story here and here.

A state appeals court ruled that a drug court defendant in Washington state is entitled to a new sentencing hearing because the judge who used expletives and said that the defendant was 'just a criminal,' showed “personal animosity.”  Interestingly, the judge had already been admonished in the past because of similar behavior.  He is no longer a drug court judge.  Here is that story.

Finally, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered a lawyer to pay a $500 sanction for discussing irrelevant and banned evidence in her opening statement in a trial.  Here is the story.

UPDATE 3/12/19:  A judge in Texas, has received a public warning for telling jurors that God told him a sex trafficking defendant was innocent.  See more here and here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Bullying from the bench

A few days ago, I posted a note with links to stories of lawyers getting in trouble for things they said.  It included two stories about judges.  See here.  Today, I saw the most recent copy of the ABA Journal has a story called "Bullying From the Bench" on recent high profile bad behavior by judges.  You can read it here.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Texas adopts duty to keep up with technology as part of concept of competence

Yesterday I posted that the Washington DC bar is considering adopting the Model Rules' approach to competence which now includes a duty to keep abreast of developments in "technology."

Today I heard that Texas is the most recent state to have adopted this notion.  You can read the details of the story here.