The First Amendment-based Canatella line of cases confuses some California State Bar Court respondents, as the minor victory in Canatella v. State of California (9th Cir. 2002) 304 F.3d 843 ("Canatella 1") obscures the egregiousness of Canatella v. Stovitz (N.D. Cal. 2005) 365 F.Supp.2d 1064 ("Canatella 2"). Canatella 1 seduces attorneys to repeat instead of learn from the Canatella 2 mistakes. Canatella 1 found that the Younger abstention doctrine, which protects ongoing state proceedings from federal court interference, did not compel case dismissal, since Canatella filed before the State Bar served him a case-initiating Notice of Disciplinary Charges. Canatella 1 also held the case, seeking prospective relief, wasn't subject to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which applies to cases seeking review of state-court decisions. Canatella's case ripened before the State Bar acted, when a new violation put the previously disciplined but unrepentant Canatella on a collision course with the State Bar. Canatella skillfully maneuvered around the restrictions of Younger abstention, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, ripeness, and mootness, to find a way to federal court. But his narrow procedural victory allowed a hearing due only to special circumstances, and the holding is usable by few respondents. Having decided these procedural preliminaries, the Ninth Circuit ordered the Northern California District Court to try the case. The district court rejected Canatella's petition on the merits.
Canatella 1 established a narrow procedural point significantly increasing the State Bar respondents' degrees of freedom, but Canatella 1, contrary to the impression of some, is far from the most important prorespondent disciplinary result obtained in federal court. That honor belongs to Standing Committee on Discipline of U.S. Dist. Court for Cent. Dist. of CA v. Yagman (9th Cir. 1995) 55 F.3d 1430. Yagman had publicly stated that a district court judicial officer, Judge Keller, was dishonest, had a "penchant for sanctioning Jews," and was "drunk on the bench." The Ninth Circuit dismissed the disciplinary action against respondent Yagman, holding "lawyers' statements unrelated to a matter pending before the court may be sanctioned only if they pose a clear and present danger to the administration of justice." (Yagman, supra, at p. 1443.) Yagman not only set a strong affirmative precedent but helped limit a U.S. Supreme Court case that significantly impaired attorneys' free-speech rights. Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada (1991) 501 U.S. 1030 held that in ongoing or pending litigation, the standard of "substantial likelihood of material prejudice" can impose a standard weaker than clear and present danger for restraining attorney speech. Yagman clarifies that "when lawyers speak out on matters unconnected to a pending case, there is no direct and immediate impact on the fair trial rights of litigants." (Yagman, supra.)
Two mistakes, two First Amendment reflexes, confuse respondents who duplicate Canatella 2's mistakes. The first is the concept that an attorney has personal free-speech rights in court representing litigants. This mistaken reasoning has confused attorneys so they argued the First Amendment protects filing frivolous motions. The leading cases' rhetoric fosters the view that attorneys have some personal free-speech rights in the courtroom, but it leads naught. The standing aphorism is that "attorneys and other trial participants do not lose their constitutional rights at the courthouse door.” (Levine v. U.S. District Ct. for the C. Dist. of Cal. (9th Cir. 1985) 764 F.2d 590, 595.) The Canatella 2 court puts the Levine holding in perspective: "The United States Supreme Court has held that 'in the courtroom itself, during a judicial proceeding, whatever right to "free speech" an attorney has is extremely circumscribed.'" (Canatella 2, supra, at p. 1071, citing Gentile.) Gentile remained a problem for Canatella and remains problematic for other State Bar respondents who assert free speech rights during pending procedures. Exuberance about attorney free-speech rights typically ignores distinctions between the attorneys' personal rights and their clients' rights. When courts announce that rights don't stop at the courthouse door, they impliedly speak of the represented parties' rights, not their attorney's personal rights. But the distinction is unstated, the Gentile court appearing to have in mind the attorney's personal rights when the court described their slenderness in an ongoing case. Systematic confusion between the two rights bearers diminishes litigants' First Amendment right to petition for redress. The concurring opinion in another Ninth Circuit case captures the real state of the law on attorney free speech rights:
I believe [Sacher v. United States (1952) 343 U.S. 1] and Gentile are potentially misleading: although they discuss the in court First Amendment rights of lawyers, in fact those rights do not have any independent substance. In the courtroom, during a judicial proceeding, an attorney's "First Amendment" rights depend exclusively on his client's trial rights. The attorney may speak only to the extent that his client's rights allow him to speak.” [Citation.] (Zal v. Steppe (9th Cir. 1992) 968 F.2d 924, 931 (conc. opn. of Trott, J.).)
Gentile's practical import is that in 1991 it had already foreclosed opposing disbarment for frivolous filings because they are believed expressive. Even though the specific speech involved in Gentile was highly public speech, the holding enveloped filings too, since it dealt generally with attorney speech relating to a pending case.
More important than the distracting confusions about an attorney's personal free-speech rights in court is the second type of mistake in opposing the State Bar's speech restraints: the persistent failure to distinguish State Bar discipline from contempt actions in California courts of record. Repeating Canatella's mistakes means, foremost, failing to distinguish State Bar discipline for violations of orders and rules from their imposition by the courts. Just as no one questions the legality of sanctions imposed for frivolous motions, more severe sanctions imposed for contempt are ordinarily valid, but the penalties should be invalidated when authorized under State Bar law rather than the court's contempt powers, the State Bar's threat qualitatively more onerous than a contempt. When attorneys test an order's validity by refusing to obey, they assume the risk they will pay a fine or even spend days in jail, whereas no attorney would test a contempt order risking State Bar discipline; the highly subjective exception for reasonable good-faith justification only dents the risk. State Bar intervention in court affairs by disciplining disobedient attorneys, consequently, impugns California's public policy allowing parties to challenge orders by conduct.
American Civil Liberties Union v. The Florida Bar (11th Cir. 1993) 999 F.2d 1486 shows how the intervention of State Bar disciplinary machinery chills advocacy much more than the threat of a contempt citation. Florida attorney Schack was running for judge, but the language of the Bar rules, which the State Bar had previously applied to limit judicial candidates' speech, cast doubt on whether exposing an opponent's corrupt practices violated rules about maintaining the dignity of office even before its attainment. Yet the State Bar refused Schack's request for an advisory opinion. Complains the Eleventh Circuit, "Thus, with two weeks remaining until the election, Schack was faced with the choice of risking possible disciplinary action by the Bar [and a related agency], or self-censoring his proposed campaign speech, despite his belief that this speech was protected under the First Amendment." (Id., at p. 1489.) Civil penalties as might apply to non-lawyers are not so paralyzing.
The argument that State Bar intervention in speech regulation singles out attorneys for harsher treatment is an equal-protection argument, rather than a free-speech argument. Lawyers and their clients are deprived of the equal protection of the law when litigants are permitted to invalidate orders by contesting a contempt citation, or violate rules and risk only monetary sanction, while the State Bar's much harsher penalties effectively compel automatic attorney compliance with all court orders. This argument's chances are better than the failed free speech arguments; Gentile's four-justice dissent shows that judges can scorn unfair and unnecessary laws exclusively targeting attorneys:
At the very least, our cases recognize that disciplinary rules governing the legal profession cannot punish activity protected by the First Amendment, and that First Amendment protection survives even when the attorney violates a disciplinary rule he swore to obey when admitted to the practice of law. [Citations.] We have not in recent years accepted our colleagues' apparent theory that the practice of law brings with it comprehensive restrictions, or that we will defer to professional bodies when those restrictions impinge upon first Amendment freedoms. And none of the justifications put forward by respondent suffice to sanction abandonment of our normal First Amendment principles in the case of speech by an attorney regarding pending cases. (Gentile, supra, at p. 1054 (lead & dis. opn. of Kennedy, J.).)State Bar-imposed speech restraints, even when unobjectionable in themselves, should be invalidated, since superimposed on the laws governing nonattorney litigants, they amount to a comprehensively restrictive regime impinging the fundamental right to the law's equal protection.