Thursday, November 7, 2013

Interlude 27. California Supreme Court vs. Stephen R. Glass: A tale of competing hypocrisies

3rd in the Stephen R. Glass series.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case of Stephen Glass; comments by the justices raise the question: who—Glass or the Supreme Court—is more self-serving. As kanBARoo court confidently predicted, the court is determined to deny Glass admission, but instead of using the occasion to uphold the centrality of honesty with clients (and, analogously, with Glass's deceived readership), the justices stressed Glass's duty to judges. (Source: The Recorder, “Court Has No Happy Ending for Infamous Fabulist,” Nov. 6, 2013.)  Justice Joyce Kennard: "As an officer of the court, should we believe whatever you tell the court?… A judge by necessity would sometimes have to rely on the utterances of an officer of the court." The court also used the opportunity to revive the antidemocratic (and perhaps unconstitutional) tenet that “being admitted to practice law is a privilege.” (Justice Kathryn Werdeger.)

Rarely do we obtain this glimpse of the justices’ conception of legal ethics as fundamentally a tool serving judges.

The Supreme Court justices followed In re Gossage (2000) 23 Cal.4th 1080, which holds that a candidate for admission who has committed acts of moral turpitude must demonstrate his rehabilitation by "exemplary conduct." The California Supreme Court indeed takes seriously its "practicing law is a privilege" authoritarianism: the Gossage court held, "Unlike in disciplinary proceedings, where the State Bar must show that an already admitted attorney is unfit to practice law and deserves professional sanction, the burden rests upon the candidate for admission to prove his own moral fitness." 

The Gossage matter is instructive in revealing how the Supreme Court exploits no-brainer cases like the Glass matter to impose a special moralistic regime on lawyers, with strictures unrelated to the core values of legal ethics. Gossage, even more clearly (if possible) than Glass, was a psychopath: he was convicted of a brutal voluntary manslaughter; he forged documents and, over a period of years, engaged in larcenous deceit of his associates. Like Glass, he lied about his history even as he tried to demonstrate his reformation.Yet, the Gossage court took the opportunity to drag into the case the applicant's Vehicle Code violations, including his citation for not installing seat belts. The court also complained of his failure to attend the resulting traffic-court hearings. These infractions don't relate to ethical failings; the attention they receive reveals the court's sheer class bias (although the immediate targets were wealthy enough): working people in California often must try to evade payment of traffic tickets.

The Glass and Gossage matters both illustrate the California State Bar Court’s legal superficiality. In each case, the Bar Court was prepared to admit the applicants, due to its judges' flagrant impressionism. Favoring impressive character opinions, which psychopaths easily garner, they ignored facts. Also evident is that Judge Honn, among others, learned nothing from Gossage.

The same State Bar Court that is so impressed by high-status witnesses supporting dishonest applicants will be unimpressed by honest applicants (and respondents) who lack social connections. The Supreme Court won't correct those errors, far more numerous. This is the key takeaway from the Gossage and Glass matters.

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