Disbar John Edwards

The last shoe dropped in the sordid John Edwards tale, with his admission that he was indeed the father of his mistress’s infant daughter, as many suspected. This comes months after he emphatically and repeatedly denied this fact to the media, in the course of admitting that he indeed did have an affair with the child’s mother, Rielle Hunter, after months of denying that. His efforts at covering up all of this ultimately incorporated his terminally ill wife, his friend and supporter Fred Baron, who paid his mistress to make herself scarce, and his aide Andrew Young, who was induced to publicly claim that he, not Edwards, was the father of baby Quinn. All of the deception initiated by Edwards took place while he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, on a platform of moral obligation and justice.

John Edwards is unfit to be lawyer, and the North Carolina Bar Association should disbar him.

The North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, like virtually all the state rules governing lawyer ethics, requires lawyers (in Rule 8.3) to report misconduct of a colleague who has violated the Rules in a manner that “raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.” It is a violation of Rule 8.4 for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” A lawyer does not have to be practicing law while engaging in such conduct, for lawyers represent the legal profession in everything they do, private or public. There has been much debate over the years regarding whether adultery is sufficiently dishonest to trigger bar discipline, and for reasons more practical than ethical, bars have declined to declare cheating on one’s spouse a serious indication of untrustworthiness, though of course it is. Edward’s conduct, however, goes far, far beyond betraying his wife and violating his marriage vows:

  • He repeatedly lied to the public and the media, even, at one point, saying that he would gladly take a lie detector test to prove that he did not father Hunter’s child.
  • He engineered a conspiracy to deceive his supporters, the Democratic Party, and the voters regarding his conduct and character, with the objective of achieving the highest office in the land under false pretenses.
  • He attempted to avoid his obligations as a father, a husband, a leader, a candidate, and a representative of the legal profession, placing his Party at risk and inducing others to engage in bribery and fraud on his behalf.
  • He did not simply cheat on his wife; he cheated on her while she was most vulnerable, battling inoperable cancer.

Is there any way a client, not to mention a family, organization, political party or nation, should trust someone who behaves like this? The attorney-client relationship’s foundation is trust; the word attorney came from an archaic French word for trust. There can be no rational argument that a man who could present an entirely false image to the American people over many years, posing as a champion of values and integrity, and then attempt to hide outrageously irresponsible behavior with an elaborate and audacious cover-up, should be trusted with a client’s funds, welfare, or legal objectives.

I wouldn’t trust him to mail a letter.

A law student who had conducted himself as Edwards has would never achieve bar admission, because his presence would degrade any bar association that included him. Would the North Carolina Bar admit Tiger Woods, if he graduated from law school? I don’t think so. But Tiger Woods’ dishonesty pales next to the despicable acts of Edwards.

I’m a lawyer, and I don’t want to be part of a profession that deems a shameless fraud like John Edwards worthy of it.

Kick him out.

13 thoughts on “Disbar John Edwards

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Disbar John Edwards « Ethics Alarms -- Topsy.com

  2. It was the lying about the baby that put me over the edge. Seems to me that he should have already learned that his lies weren’t working, that the pit-bull media would find him out. So in addition to being despicable and dishonest, he is also unintelligent.

    Poor Elizabeth Edwards. Despite her rambling book, she is absolutely my hero.

    Remarkable to me HOW MANY MEN have lost their careers, public respect, and of course lots and lots of property because they couldn’t keep their pants on. Truly stunning.

    • Just can’t agree about Elizabeth. She knew about the affair, and still was willing to keep up the deception and inflict an 18 carat phony on the U.S. No, she’s guilty of aiding and abetting.

  3. I agree with the spirit of this article 100%. I absolutely believe he should be disbarred. I disagree with the author’s assessment of bar admission. I *do* think a bar would admit Tiger Woods– and that would be bad judgment, but I do believe it would happen. A good example: watch the movie Shattered Glass. It is about the publication called the New Republic (“THE inflight magazine of Air Force One”). The movie is a real life story of this guy who completely fabricated and lied about facts in article after article. This caused a great deal of embarrassment to the editors, and shame to the publication. After perpetrating his extensive frauds, well, he was permitted to stay in Georgetown Law School, AND he later became a member of the New York State Bar. A snippet from Wikipedia:

    “Stephen Glass (born 1972) is a former American journalist, known for serial fraud in his articles. Over a three year period as a young rising star at the prestigious national magazine, The New Republic, from 1995 to 1998, he fabricated quotations, sources, and even entire events in articles he wrote for that magazine and others. He was fired when his deceptions came to light.”

    So, Tiger has a chance, and John Edwards will probably remain a member of the NC Bar.

  4. For the sake of argument, let’s say John Edwards is disbarred. What about some of the other lawyers involved in this matter?

    Andrew Young also graduated from law school. I’ve read he has never practiced law but if he was admitted to the bar, would you submit he should be disbarred? There is no question he has engaged in conduct involving “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

    The same can be said of Fred Baron and he was a practicing attorney. While he has died, would you support his disbarment if he were still alive?

    If you want to apply these standards, you must clearly define the rules, create a workable mechanism to enforce them and apply them consistently. Doing so would be no small task!

    Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t hire any of these men to represent me in any legal matter. Actually, I wouldn’t hire them for anything. Perhaps that is the ultimate solution. In this case the publicity has been widespread. In other cases, the actions of the attorney(s) aren’t well known so the public cannot protect themselves; therefore, I’d add the need for transparency to the requirements in the paragraph above. Lawyers wouldn’t be able to protect one another from their actions and doing so would also be deceitful. Shakespeare’s solution to kill all the lawyers would be unnecessary because there would be very few left.

    • Self-policing is never easy, and you can never have exact rules as you would like. Better is to have principles that are clear, fair and sensible, and not call them too tightly…which is how the ethics rules are interpreted generally. I don’t thing Edwards is a close call—I don’t think he’s even CLOSE to a close call. Young: yeah, I’d say discipline for sure; maybe only a suspension: there are mitigating circumstances. His was just one act, and he was acting under the corrupting direction of a superior. Baron is an even closer call. (I knew Fred.) He didn’t really do anything dishonest himself; he just helped facilitate Edwards’ cover-up. That would be one I’d be inclined to let go. I don’t think it necessarily rendered Fred untrustworthy.

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

      • If you are going to have such rules, Edwards isn’t a close call. As for Young and Baron, all the facts would need to be known to make a final call.

        There have been reports Young was more proactive than only “acting under the corrupting direction of a superior” and even if that were true, it sounds too much like a “just following orders” defense for my taste. (He could have said no and should have if he were following any sort of ethical standards.)

        Similarly for Baron, it’s not possible to determine how much fraud, deceit or misrepresentation occurred without all the facts. For example, the equation changes if it were proven that he was a superior directing Young.

        My point is that even within your own arguments there seems to be a fair amount of subjectivity. At that point, it becomes a slippery slope as to who is disciplined and who is not. Especially troublesome is who makes the decisions and what may be motivating them if only subconsciously.

        Please don’t think I’m singling out the legal profession. The same discussion could take place regarding the lack of ethics in business, finance, etc. It is a sad commentary on the state of our world today but it is where we very unfortunately are.

  5. No disciplinary system is perfect, and no system will avoid injustices. That’s just not a reason to forget about discipline. Bias of some kind is always involved. You do the best you can, with reasonable guidelines that won’t always be completely satisfactory. Edwards is still an easy call.

    • Agreed, however your comment makes my point. I assume your argument to disbar Edwards is based on the cover up as opposed to solely on the affair. (If adultery is the lone offense, many lawyers would be disbarred.) So based on the cover up, Edwards is a slam dunk. In my opinion, so are Young and Baron. Allow me to explain with a separate example . . .

      I am not a lawyer but I am in a self-regulated industry with a national licensing agency. (Slightly different than bar associations that vary from state to state.) It is my responsibility to know and understand the rules with which I must comply. So let’s say my boss comes to me and tells me to do “xyz” which is a violation. Ethically I have a responsibility not only to refuse but also to report any violations of my boss. If I don’t do so, I am subject to losing my license which would also mean losing my job and being ineligible to any other job requiring that license.

      Further, let’s say my boss did “xyz” but later I participated in helping to cover up the violation. The end result for me would be the same in losing my license, etc.

      My argument is that “just following orders” should never be a defense to illegal or unethical behavior. Similarly “facilitating a cover up” is aiding and abetting. (Many people caught up in Watergate didn’t know about the break-in beforehand but did help cover it up. They shouldn’t be in government.)

      The reasonable guidelines you suggest may not always be completely satisfactory but cannot have such large gray areas. If you can drive a truck through the rules, the line will be moved from anything goes to almost anything goes.

      For now we can agree to disagree since the discussion is hypothetical but if bar associations want to go down this path, the hypotheticals have to be addressed in order for the rules to have any practical application.

      • Rachel: I’d never sat following unethical orders is a defense. It IS a mitigating factor in considering proper punishment, and should be. (ABA Ruke 5.2 excuses a subordinate who participated in unethical conduct from discipline if he or she has been “following a supervising attorney’s reasonable resolution of an arguable” point of ethics, which would still not apply to Young.

        I’m not comfortable with Naron’s case, because I’m not sure what he did. He said he sues his own money to stop the woman from making claims, and didn’t know the facts of what Edwards did. That wouldn’t be a disciplinary matter. If, however, he used campaign funds, that’s a different story. Just paying the woman not to sue—a settlement in effact, with a confidentiality clause, well, that’s just practicing law. Even if it helped John Edwards lie, Baron wasn’t lying, or covering up anything illegally—the same thing might have been done if Edwards intended to come 100% clean.

        Ethics rules are not laws, and ethics has to involve gray areas. What is “untrustworthy”?
        What is “deceit”? We argue the hypothetical all the time to try to clarify things, but they still have gray content, which the lawyers generally hate. Most of my legal ethics colleagues say Edwards shouldn’t be disbarred because he broke no laws. Well, the Rules don’t require that, and the only reason there isn’t a law against lying about a substantive matter to the entire nation is that the people who pass laws do it all the time. The lack of a law doesn’t alter whether conduct is right or wrong….or whether we can designate it as such.

  6. Obviously, we are going to respectfully disagree. I would question the contention that payoffs constitute a settlement and just practicing law, especially since a settlement is normally understood to require an executed document listing the conditions imposed on both parties. I also wouldn’t consider a person to be following orders as part of his job when he is receiving significant monetary rewards beyond his usual salary for those actions.

    If ABA rules excuse a subordinate for following a superior’s orders, then the ABA should reconsider the rules. As I pointed out, other industries are able to self-regulate with a stronger set of standards. I don’t see any reason the ABA could not follow suit.

  7. A settlement out of court does not have any formal requirements at all. You can do it on a handshake. And I didn’t say that Young taking extra money to do the cover-up wasn’t part of the offense, just that the fact that he was a subordinate was a mitigating factor.

    ABA 5.2b is controversial. Some states, like Virginia, omit it, saying that it creates a Nuremberg defense. And I agree.

    The legal ethics rules are fine, for the most part, given what the profession involves. It’s the enforcement of them that is the problem. They are not really compliance rules…they are ethical guidelines.

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