Thursday, November 18, 2010

84th Installment. The Inherent Untruthfulness of CYA Letters

A CYA (cover your ass) letter is one whose purpose is to rebut client's blame in advance when acknowledging the motive would defeat the purpose. (See 75th Installment, The Torture Memos & the Tortured Legal Ethics Justifying "CYA Letters," for elaboration.) Ethicists mostly ignore CYA letters, an ensconced form of professional untruthfulness.

After I commented that professional protectiveness toward CYA letters stymied the prosecution of John Yoo, Monroe Freedman, who posts at the Legal Ethics Forum, tried to open a discussion of CYA letters. Here's the example he posted:
In 1971, the Nixon administration arrested 13,000 people, virtually all of whom had come to DC to peacefully protest the Vietnam War. I was in charge of ACLU’s litigation effort on their behalf.
One group of clients consisted of 2400 people who had been arrested for disorderly conduct, but with no probably [sic] cause and with no record made by the arresting officers of the circumstances of the arrests. (In fact, one of the group was a White House secretary who had been arrested while walking to work.) The arrestees were required to post collateral and given court dates for trials. Many did not appear because they had come from distant places. In those cases, the government moved the court to forfeit their collateral and enter a conviction. Whenever a defendant did appear, however, he or she was met at the courtroom door by a prosecutor who gave the defendant a green card indicating that the case had been dismissed and informing them how to get their collateral refunded.
Monroe describes his CYA letter:
Thereafter, with reference to the MayDay “arrests,” some members of the class asked me whether they had to answer yes if asked on job, graduate school, or bar applications whether they had ever been arrested. I told them that, in my opinion, they could properly answer no. (For those too young to recall, there were people who would be strongly hostile to anti-war demonstrators, peaceable or not; think Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry.) However, I cautioned them that a letter to that effect from me would not be an immunity bath, although it would at least provide evidence of their good faith if they were ever challenged on the issue. I also pointed out that a lie on an application might well be considered a more serious matter than the fact of an arrest, and that someone else might disagree with me regarding whether they had lied. In those cases in which people requested the letter (all such cases, as I recall), I wrote it for them. However, I did not include my cautions in the letters I simply stated the facts and my opinion. [Emphasis added.]
Momentarily disoriented by my substantive agreement with Monroe's cause—I'm less sympathetic to some of his other causes—I seriously erred in my comment (while the other commenters missed the point). An unfortunate error of mine, as Monroe's letter contains the fundamental CYA disclaimer, the basic formula rendering CYA letters a dishonest practice. My comment is useful here because it illustrates the fallacy committed by attorneys who think CYA letters benign. Mistakenly exculpating Monroe's letter, I posted:
The equivocal caveat in your direct advice amounts to advice about using the advice; placing this "meta-advice" in the letter leads a third-party reader to read the qualification into the advice itself.
My comment elevated form over substance. The language of the disclaimer is part of the advice: it's information about the likelihood the advice will prove accurate. It is no less part of the advice than a direct statement expressing that likelihood. The counter-argument that the disclaimer is boilerplate is unavailing: it compounds untruthfulness, as boilerplate inaccurately expresses the attorney's opinion in the particular case. When attorneys gratuitously denigrate their own degree of confidence through boilerplate disclaimers, they are no less untruthful than when they exaggerate their certainty. Likelihood of accuracy is of the essence; John Yoo's misconduct was gross over-confidence in his theory.

CYA letters are so ingrained in American legal practice that even I overlooked the unethical character of Monroe's letter. The deep seated untruthfulness of a professional practice is matter for deep concern. It makes lawyers oblivious to other forms of dishonesty, lowers professionals' commitment to truthfulness, and creates an accurate public impression of dishonesty. CYA letters also constitute bought exoneration, where a client's attorney administers "justice"—for a fee.

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