Wednesday, November 28, 2007

kanBARoo Court, 11th Installment, What's Wrong with Fishing Expeditions?

A fictitious deposition segment of a State Bar respondent ('K'), by Deputy Trial Counsel ('J'):

J: You claim to have complied with the Rules of Professional Conduct, yet you have repeatedly lied before the courts of California.

K: Untrue.

J: Please look at this declaration. Is that your signature?

K: Yes it is.

J: You signed this declaration under penalty of perjury. Is that correct?

K: Yes it is.

J: Is everything you affirmed under penalty of perjury as true, actually true?

K: Yes, I don't execute declarations unless I know that the propositions I declare are true.

J: Was it true, then, that you required more than 35 special interrogatories in this simple breach of contract case.

K: Yes, in my judgment, I required more than 35 special interrogatories to properly discover the facts of the case.

J: But you took defendant's deposition. Could you not have asked those additional questions in the oral deposition?

K: I could have. But in my judgment, I needed to pin the defendant down before the deposition.
J: Based on your judgment that you needed to pin down the defendant, you declared under penalty of perjury that the questions were necessary. You justified an exception to the 35-question rule, an exception that must be based on actual need, on your value judgment that it would be helpful to ask for the answers in writing first?

K: Necessity is not subject to a bright line test. My standard for necessity did not diverge from the norm in the professional community.

J: Well, I don't think you are going to be the judge of that. But let's move on to another question regarding the truthfulness of this declaration. Are you aware that the Code of Civil Procedure states that signing any legal paper verifies under penalty of perjury that the document was printed on recycled paper?

K: Yes I am aware of the rule. I am also aware that few attorneys believe that the provision you reference was seriously meant for enforcement.

J: Spare us your self-serving opinions about what other attorneys do. This case is not about them. We took this paper to a chemical laboratory and established that it was not recycled stock. Do you admit it was not unrecycled paper?

K: I don't know what kind of paper it was. Whether the paper I printed the document on was recycled or otherwise is not something I or most attorneys worry about.

J: Whatever your excuses, you admit that you signed the document, thereby verifying under penalty of perjury that the paper was recycled. At best, you had no knowledge about whether it was or was not recycled. Do you think that satisfies the definition of perjury?

K: I'm not here to debate the law with you, but I do not think that perjury can be established constitutionally by statutory imputation of meaning. Perjury is determined from the facts and the four corners of the document.

J: Your legal opinions are of no concern to me. Regardless of whether you can be convicted of perjury, you signed a statement implying you knew the paper was recycled. Whether a criminal act of perjury or not, by signing falsely, you committed an act of moral turpitude, mandating your disbarment.

In this story, Deputy Trial Counsel J's fishing expedition paid off. Fishing expeditions in general have fallen into unwarranted bad repute. In deposing a party in a civil lawsuit, counsel is not limited to inquiring about potential evidence. The information sought may be fashioned to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, even if the inquiry is not about that evidence. But if the information is not relevant, that information will not be admissible at trial. Either it leads to admissible evidence or in the end it is worthless. Not so with testimony before the State Bar, where the notice of disciplinary charges can easily be amended to encompass any matter discovered.

Rules and laws span the gamut in degree of their intent to be construed in all earnestness. Much of what a lawyer learns during his vaunted experience consists of knowing how seriously to take various rules. The recycled paper rule is a nice example of a rule few take seriously. When an attorney is charged with moral turpitude, little machinery exists to enforce a distinction as to the seriousness of the law's intent. A fishing expedition can thus be a devastating instrument of inequity. The only way to stop it is to insist on a proper, factual, notice of disciplinary charges.

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