Possessed Lawyer Ethics

Is it unethical for a lawyer to claim she is possessed by a client’s dead wife?

This  question has been puzzling professional responsibility experts for decades. Okay, not really. In fact, surprisingly, it just doesn’t happen all that often. But in Arizona, a lawyer is now facing suspension for claiming that she was possessed by the spirit of a client’s dead wife, then lying about it under oath. The dead wife is being accused of illegal immigration.

[OK, I made up that part, too. Sorry; couldn’t resist.]

The ABA Journal reports that the lawyer, Charna Johnson, began representing a client during his divorce proceedings. While they were ongoing the client’s wife committed suicide, and Johnson later co-represented the husband in probate proceedings. Johnson and the client then became convinced, according to their sworn testimony and that of two witnesses, that the client’s wife had possessed Johnson, though she considerately allowed Johnson to continue to practice law. The client’s theory was that his wife had come back to make up for the damage she caused in the marriage through her prescription drug use.

The dead wife was showing admirable accountability and responsibility here. But spiritual possession is inherently unethical, as anyone who has had to deal with Pazuzu could testify. (Linda Blair was not available for comment, and I’m not messing with Pazuzu.) Possession is a violation of respect, fairness, and autonomy, unless one has the informed consent of the one possessed, like in “Ghost,” when Patrick Swayze possessed Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi was a good sport about that.

The nature of the lawyer’s alleged violations of the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct center on Johnson’s—or at least her body’s—sexual overtures to the client husband. It is prohibited for Arizona lawyers to have sexual relations with their clients (Rule 1.8), but 1) there was no evidence that the flirtation went that far, 2) Johnson and the client agreed that it was the wife, who apparently got a little Randy in Charna’s bod, sending those suggestive e-mails, and most important of all, 3) there was no evidence that being possessed interfered with the quality of Johnsons’ representation.

Maybe the wife was pre-law in college.

A disciplinary hearing concluded that there was no violation of the core Arizona legal ethics Rule 8.4 by Johnson when she claimed to be possessed, since she believed it.  Personally, I would have explored whether she had violated ethical standards by aiding in the unauthorized practice of law by the dead wife, which is a serious rules violation, and perhaps even splitting fees (a Rule 1.5 violation) with her. The situation raises other difficult ethical issues —for example, could communications that passed from the client to Johnson still be privileged, if the dead wife was, you know, listening in? I think not. Did the wife constitute a third person to whom Johnson’s duties created a conflict of interest with her representation of the husband? I would assume so: being possessed by someone has to be regarded as a close personal relationship.  If you don’t treat the person inside you well, watch out!  But the disciplinary hearing inexplicably ignored these issues.

In the end, however, it was determined that Johnson violated the Arizona rules prohibiting lawyer dishonesty, when in a hearing on another, unrelated disciplinary matter she was asked about “channeling” the dead wife’s spirit, and Johnson denied it. Johnson claimed this was just a misunderstanding: she wasn’t channeling, which is when a live person allows a dead one to communicate through her; she was actually possessed by the dead wife’s spirit, which is a different thing entirely. Nonetheless, the hearing officer lowered the boom on Johnson, writing, “To pretend that she did not understand the common vernacular of what channeling is cannot be believed.”

They are strict in Arizona.

2 thoughts on “Possessed Lawyer Ethics

  1. Pingback: Ethics Lawyers | Lawyers Locations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.