Saturday, October 5, 2013

When can a lawyer be sanctioned for criticism of judges?

The Indiana Disciplinary Commission recently recommended a one year suspension without automatic reinstatement for an attorney based on the content of private communications criticizing a judge. The case is now before the state's supreme court which should decide the sanction would be an unconstitutional interference with the attorney's freedom of speech. For more details on the case, go here.

In this case, the commission recommended the sanction for emails that the attorney sent to another attorney criticizing a judge for mishandling a case. Among other things, the attorney stated that that the judge “should be turned in to the disciplinary commission for how he handled this case.”

The commission apparently told the attorney he could forgo the possible disciplinary proceeding if he apologized for the comment but the attorney refused and decided to fight the charge instead. I applaud him for this decision because the commission is clearly acting unconstitutionally here. The attorney has the right to express his opinion about the judge and if that statement is what the commission is basing its position on, it does not have any valid basis for imposing sanctions. I hope the Indiana Supreme Court does the right thing here and sends the commission (and the judge) packing.

Ironically, apparently the commission has argued as an aggravating factor that the attorney "believes he is superior to the courts and the law.” Yet, it is the commission which apparently believes its power is superior to the attorney's first amendment protected right to express his opinion.

This is not a case where the attorney made assertions of fact about the judge (like the recently reported case where it was alleged that an attorney argued a judge was a pedophile).  Here the attorney expressed his opinion about the competence of the judge.  This type of expression is protected speech.