Sunday, October 25, 2009

Does a lawyer violate a state imposed suspension order if he continues to practice in federal court?

Does a lawyer suspended from practice by a state Supreme Court engage in unauthorized practice of law if he continues to represent clients in federal court (within the same state and on matters that involve state law) during the suspension period?

That is the issue presented by a case working its way to the Louisiana Supreme Court. There, the attorney was prohibited by an Order of the Louisiana Supreme Court from practicing in the state of Louisiana, but he was still licensed in the federal court system. The situation was brought to the attention of the federal judges in the Eastern District of Louisiana but they declined to suspend the attorney in the federal court. In other words, the attorney was permitted by the federal court system to continue to practice law in the Eastern District of Louisiana although his Louisiana law license had been suspended by order of the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Once the lawyer served his suspension, he requested reinstatement. The hearing committee decided that the attorney did not violate the terms of the suspension order by continuing to represent Louisiana residents in federal courts and recommended reinstatement.

The Disciplinary Board split 4-4, thus adopting the decision of the hearing committee. The matter is now before the Supreme Court.

One of the dissenting opinions at the Board level concluded that the lawyer’s continued practice in the federal court system was “nothing less than an affront to the authority of the Louisiana Supreme Court and the role the Court plays in ensuring that the public is adequately protected from lawyers who fail to adhere to the appropriate standards of professional conduct.” Another one suggested that by maintaining a law office and by holding himself to the citizens of the state as a lawyer competent to exercise legal judgment and to counsel them on matters of state law, the lawyer violated the suspension order.

This is an interesting question. Obviously, the state Supreme Court has no authority over the lawyer’s practice in federal court. If he was allowed to practice there – particularly after being informed of the state suspension – then he had a perfect right to continue to do so. The fact that may make a difference, though, is that the attorney was not representing clients in matters that were exclusively federal. The attorney was practicing state law, so to speak, in federal court. The issue is whether the authority to suspend an attorney from practice is geographical, jurisdictional or even topical.

It will be interesting to see what the state Supreme Court decides.

The case is In Re Joseph Bruno and the decision of the Disciplinary Board and the dissenting opinions are available here.

Thanks to the Legal Profession Blog for the link.

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