Saturday, November 1, 2008

kanBARoo Court. 51st Installment. Online Charges: The State Bar's Latest Power Grab

In the State Bar establishment's summer power play, the Board of Governors authorized Internet posting of the State Bar's mere allegations against a Member. For once, even the county state bar organizations protest, by opposing the Board of Governors' 18-4 decision. Dissenters focus on the threat to the reputations of innocent attorneys, who the State Bar says constitute 9% of its respondents, but the State Bar argues from the wrong statistic, grounded in tacitly assuming false charges' reputational harmlessness unless the accused is completely exonerated. Critics mostly accept the focus on the 9% statistic, despite its invalidity as a measure of wrongful harm to reputation.

The State Bar places the policy's critics in the unfavorable position of opposing transparent public administration and the public's right to access public information conveniently. Assuming a stance that seems to oppose the public welfare, the critics can succeed only by asserting that the web disclosures violate some basic right: according to legal ethicist Diane Karpman, the presumption of innocence. (Karpman, Online charges catch the good and the bad (August 2008) California Bar Journal.) She's right, but the argument is impossible to win. To prove that the posting violates the presumption of innocence, a respondent must show that the public disclosure is intended as punishment. (See Bell v. Wolfish (1979) 441 U.S. 520, 585 [dis. opn. Stevens, J.].) Inherently, the State Bar's punitive intent isn't hard to prove, shaming being a traditional means of punishment, but under Bell v. Wolfish, a reviewing court must find that the measure has no rational justification except as punishment, to conclude punishment without proof violated the presumption of innocence. (Id.)

The State Bar's hypocrisy in playing the public-protection card is shown by the contours of its new posting policy, the policy's anti-public interest direct effects, its internal contradictions. One of the most important public interests regarding legal practice is attorney-client confidentiality. As Karpman argues, the State Bar's new posting policy conflicts with the public interest by undermining confidentiality in matters where the accused attorney's clients haven't agreed to disclosure. (Karpman, supra.) The State Bar's expungement allowance for administrative suspensions, amended this summer for greater leniency, contradicts the State Bar's claim that the public's right to know is paramount. Most tellingly under the new posting policy, when the Member is completely exonerated, the rule requires removal of the NDC and the opinion dismissing it within 60 days. With the last rule, the State Bar disregards both attorney reputational interests and public informational interests, to favor the State Bar's self-protective instinct.

Supporting barriers to public information access yields the high ground to the State Bar. The new posting policy threatens innocent reputations only because the State Bar self-servingly proposes postable and unpostable categories that increase the weight of adverse information and strengthen the State Bar’s bargaining posture in disciplinary negotiations. The policy undemocratically hides private complaints filed with the State Bar, information that would show what investigations the State Bar omits, a matter publicly interesting. And the State Bar adds only minimal caveats when it posts the Notice of Disciplinary Charges, without warning, for example, that no court reviewed the allegations.

All public information should be available on the State Bar's web site, and all information related to disciplinary matters should be public. If the State Bar claims such posting is impractical, then it must admit that a selection process biases the posted information. Unless the State Bar will allow the public web access to all records related to discipline, offering up the Notice of Disciplinary charges before any court has seen it is not to inform the public but rather to attempt its influence. The Notice of Disciplinary Charges often fails to state disciplinable charges. Yet even exoneration of specific charges will fail to remove them, which endure in perpetuity, while within sixty days, the State Bar would excise proof exonerating a respondent of all charges.


Anonymous said...

As Stephen wrote, the "State Bar disregards both attorney reputational interests and public informational interests, to favor the State Bar's self-protective instinct." It also appears that the State Bar fails to consider the effect on former clients who report former attorneys for ethics violations. Under the new open information rules, a prospective attorney may search the database of ethics complaints to see if a prospective client has formerly filed ethics complaints against other attorneys. This essentially discourages clients who observe unethical behavior from submitting complaints, as it will make it harder for the client to obtain representation in future litigation.

Anonymous said...

The kanBARoo Court blog brings to the attention of attorneys and the public consistent wrong doing by the State Bar, which has destroyed the hopes and dreams of hard working persons devoted to the law. What appears to me to be the most dangerous action thus far is the action against Richard Fine for what should be within the scope of the First Amendment as a petition for redress of grievance.
It seems that there should be not only a blog, but an organization set up to file amicus briefs, seek legislative change and oversight, and support persons whose rights have been cavilearly ignored by the State Bar Courts while the Supreme Court simply either ignores the problem, pretends that it care, or washes its hands of the wrong that has obviously been done. While the case which initiated this blog is apparently over, the wrongs continue, and for all that have been harmed there should be a common purpose to change the law, to compel the Supreme Court to review disciplinary actions or the denial of admissions, and to do its job, write well reasoned opinions, and provide all persons with a fair opportunity to be heard before Judges who under our Constitution are responsible to the electorate.