Monday, September 16, 2013

How not to practice law: insult the opposition

In class we discuss some cases on the question of whether an attorney can or should disciplined for expressing offensive opinions or for making racist comments.  Among other things, we draw distinctions between expression and conduct and between offensive-but legal conduct and conduct that violates valid regulation on discrimination.  The discussion is interesting because eventually the question becomes whether the rules should be different for lawyers simply because they are lawyers.  And, as you probably know, the result of some of the cases is that the answer is yes.

Interestingly, the Legal Profession blog is reporting on a new case that adds to the debate.  In this case, available here, the Indiana Supreme Court has imposed a 30-day suspension on an attorney for writing a letter to opposing counsel in a divorce action that contained the following statement:  "Your client doesn't understand what laws and court orders are. Probably because she's an illegal alien to begin with." The court rejected the suggestion that the comment was legitimate advocacy and concluded that it had no purpose other than to embarrass or burden the opposing party.

I don't think that the conduct in this case, although offensive, would be sufficient to impose sanctions under the Model Rules.  Indiana's rule 8.4(g) clearly holds that it constitutes misconduct to "[e]ngag[e] in conduct, in a professional capacity, manifesting bias or prejudice based upon race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, or similar factors, and this conduct was not legitimate advocacy."  This language is taken from part of the comment of the Model Rule which suggests such conduct can be considered to be a violation of MR 8.4 but only if the conduct is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Should sexist comments be a disciplinary offense? Should they be tolerated either as a “First Amendment right”? For a discussion on the subject, see Roberta M. Ikemi and Carol A. Sobel, Should Sexist Comments be a Disciplinary Offense?, 81 A.B.A. J. 40 (August, 1995). Ikemi argues that “[i]f we truly believe in equal access to justice, the courts should have the power to discipline lawyers for gender-biased or racist conduct” because “[w]hen directed at other lawyers, this behavior is evidence of an unwarranted opinion about who is deemed to be a worthy opponent. Left unchecked, the conduct has the effect of intimidation and denies the value of the attorney’s contribution to the legal system. In short, gender-biased and racist conduct denies the principle of equal access to the justice system and its courts, and keeps it from becoming a reality by silencing those who would implement it.” 

In contrast, Sobel suggests that “the fact of a problem with gender bias by attorneys in the judicial system does not excuse any action to discipline attorneys for “objectionable” speech.” She argues that the “utterance of biased expression should not be enough to invoke the sanctions of the legal system because one important part of our commitment to expressive rights is that no person’s speech will be punished simply because it is found to be “offensive” to another person or portion of the community.”