Tuesday, August 11, 2015

ABA considers adding anti-bias rule; is it a form of regulating "offensive" speech? Meanwhile, in New York, lawyer gets suspended for expressing offensive speech

Model Rule 8.4(d) (and most, if not all, its state equivalents) considers misconduct to engage in conduct that prejudicial to the administration of justice.  In addition, paragraph 3 of the comment to Model Rule 8.4 states that "[a] lawyer who, in the course of representing a client, knowingly manifests by words or conduct, bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, violates paragraph (d) when such actions are prejudicial to the administration of justice. Legitimate advocacy respecting the foregoing factors does not violate paragraph (d)..."

This is an odd comment.  It does not say that expressing bias or prejudice while representing a client is prejudicial to the administration of justice (and thus could subject the lawyer to possible discipline).  It only states that if engaging in that conduct is against the administration of justice then the lawyer violates the ban against conduct that is against the administration of justice.  In other words, the comment really does not add much to the rule.

For this reason, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility is considering an amendment to the Rule itself.  The proposed amendment (and other materials in support of the proposal) are available here.  The new Rule 8.4(g) would state that it is misconduct to "knowingly harass or discriminate" against persons on the basis of the factors currently listed in the comment.

One concern over adopting "anti-bias" rules is that if the rule is not drafted carefully it may be subject to attack for regulating constitutionally protected speech, even if the state can, and already does, regulate attorneys' speech in other contexts.

Take for example a recent case in New York in which a lawyer was suspended for, among other things, having made “patently offensive racial, ethnic, homophobic, sexist, and other derogatory remarks to attorneys.”   The case is Matter of Teague and it is available here.

The opinion does not really explain the context of the statements other than saying they were uttered "to attorneys." The court suggests that the attorney in question "spewed racist, sexist, homophobic and offensive epithets against other attorneys that any reasonable person, let alone a reasonable attorney, would know are simply unacceptable in public discourse," but it is not clear, when or where, those epithets were uttered.  For example, it is not clear whether the comments were made during a legal proceeding, or during private conversations.

The court concluded that "Respondent’s conduct should not and will not be tolerated."  This conclusion is fine as to the other "conduct" involved in the case (disruptive conduct in hearings) but not necessarily as to the content of the attorney's speech.

Would it be permissible for the state to discipline a lawyer for expressing bias at a social event?  during conversation with a stranger at a bar? during a political rally?  Would it be permissible for a state to discipline an attorney because the attorney is a member of a group that expresses bias against others? or a member of a church that expresses bias against women or other religious groups? 

The broad language used by the court in New York suggests an attorney could be disciplined for offensive language regardless of context.  I am not sure that result would be valid.

Smartly, the proposed language for a new Model Rule 8.4(g) attempts to avoid the problem by trying to limit the rule to "conduct" (as opposed to speech).   However, by using the word "harass," the rule leaves open the possibility of its application to speech.

Other jurisdictions have already adopted anti bias rules. As discussed in the Legal Ethics Forum,  Indiana Rule 8.4(g) states that it is misconduct to "engage in conduct, in a professional capacity, manifesting, by words or conduct, bias or prejudice based upon race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, or similar factors..."

Note how this rule applies to pure speech but limits its applicability to a lawyer's professional capacity. 

In contrast, Illinois Rule 8.4(g) holds it is misconduct to violate a federal, state or local statute or ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status by conduct that reflects adversely on the lawyer's fitness as a lawyer.

This rule limits its application to conduct that constitutes a violation of the law and that reflects adversely on the lawyer's fitness to practice law.

Are these good, or valid, ways to compromise?

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