Can a Lying Journalist Be a Trustworthy Lawyer?

Stephen Glass: Would you trust this man?

When New Republic Editor Charles Lane fired Stephen Glass, the infamous journalist for that and other magazines who in 1998 was exposed as having fabricated many articles he had represented as true, he was quoted as saying,  “Glass is a man without honor who operated out of hostility and contempt; he has no place in journalism.”

Now the question is whether such man now has a place in the law.

A petition for review has been filed by the California Commission of Bar Examiners contesting the  State Bar Court’s finding that Glass is now morally fit to practice law. He passed the California bar exam in 2007, but the committee blocked his admission, finding that his previous record of professional dishonesty, though in another profession, showed such a deficiency of character that it disqualified him from legal practice as unfit. Then a hearing judge over-ruled the Commission, and found that Glass had reformed sufficiently to render trustworthy. The opinion was upheld 2-1 by the State Bar Court.

The majority opinion by State Bar Court Judge Judith Epstein, said:

“The scope of the fraud in this case is staggering. Between July 1996 and May 1998, all but a handful of the articles authored by Glass were fabricated to some degree, including those published by TNR and by magazines such as The Policy Review, George, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s. Glass invented sources, events and organizations, and he concocted quotes. These falsehoods added potency and color to his writing, but he often used them to demean his subjects, resulting in stories that were mean-spirited….To make matters worse, Glass covered up his inventions with additional lies. Prior to publication, he systematically defrauded fact-checkers and editors by creating reporter’s notes and other documents to support the facts and quotes in his articles. Glass followed up with further deceptions after publication when his articles prompted complaints or letters to the editor. He countered them with more falsely generated reporter’s notes and forged documents. As a consequence, the publications stood behind his work.”

When Glass was finally  confronted with proof that he had made up a published piece, the judge relates, he denied the fabrication “and provided the editor with fabricated notes and forged documents to support the article. He even set up false voicemail boxes and a phony website and arranged for his brother in California to pose as a source when the editor called him to verify the story. In spite of these desperate efforts to cover his actions, the editor’s questions persisted, and ultimately Glass confessed that the entire article was fabricated.”

Stephen Glass attended Georgetown University Law Center after his nationally covered disgrace, graduated with top grades, and was quickly rejected for membership in the New York Bar because of his history of deception. So how and why did California’s  State Bar Court conclude, as it did, that Stephen Glass is now a reformed man, capable of entering the profession that requires trustworthiness, integrity and honesty as its highest values?

Character witnesses.

Glass produced ten impressive individuals willing to testify to his character, including two law professors, an owner of The National Review, an investigative journalist, four attorneys and a founder and CEO of an educational software company who was a Rhodes Scholar. He also submitted declarations of five witnesses supporting his bar application, including three lawyers, a director at Human Rights Watch, and an International Relations Officer for the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We afford great weight to Glass’s character witnesses, who were community leaders, employers, judges, and attorneys, and all of whom spoke with the utmost confidence in Glass’s good moral character and rehabilitation.,” Judge Epstein said.

Astounding.

I have received character recommendations and written them for others, but I always assumed that their value was only routine, useful to establish that the applicant could produce individuals of reasonable credibility to testify to some level of character, but hardly  powerful or especially persuasive evidence. If an applicant couldn’t find anyone who would swear to his character, that would be more persuasive, and alarming.

For personal recommendations are more an indication of contacts and networking than they are of genuine character assessment. How many non-family in your life really know you well? I doubt that it is as many as ten; in my case, it would be less than five, and I know a lot of people. Yet you probably have twenty or more distinguished individuals who would testify that within their experience, you are a wonderful human being.

When Bill Lerach, the New York lawyer who rigged dozens of class action law suits, making millions for himself while paying off plaintiffs, was being sentenced, a Who’s Who of the bar, including prominent lawyers, judges and even Ralph Nader, sent letters proclaiming him to be a man of great character. Then he was sent to prison and promptly tried to bribe a guard. I have no doubt that the day before John Edwards was exposed as the serial liar and cad that he is, he could have lined up scores of famous and accomplished Americans, including Senators, ministers, social activists, lawyers  and CEOs, all prepared to vouch for his sterling character…which, as we all know, was  a sham. When there is no serious evidence that an individual is dishonest and untrustworthy, character endorsements by others are better than nothing. To assume that they outweigh real and serious misconduct, however, is fanciful.

The dissenting judge, Catherine D. Purcell, seems to grasp this. “Glass did not prove that he is fully rehabilitated from his misconduct,” she wrote:

“…Although he provided evidence of some rehabilitation, the Committee proved that five years after his initial public fraud, Glass was not truthful on his application for admission to the New York Bar. In that 2003 application, he expressed remorse for his lies and promised to be honest. Yet, to gain admission to practice law in New York, Glass understated the number of articles he had fabricated and exaggerated his efforts to help the magazines identify those articles. At a time when he should have been scrupulously honest, he presented an inaccurate application because it benefitted him—the same behavior as his earlier misconduct. And as late as 2005, Glass told one psychiatrist that he was still in the process of understanding and accepting his past misconduct. Just two years later, in 2007, he applied for admission to the California bar.”

“This record does not demonstrate Glass’s complete rehabilitation. If he is admitted to practice law, California courts and others will rely on his word as an officer of the court…Indeed, if Glass were to fabricate evidence in legal matters as readily and effectively as he falsified material for magazine articles, the harm to the public and the profession would be immeasurable. Given the magnitude of his misconduct and his subsequent misrepresentations on his New York Bar application, Glass has not shown proof of reform by a lengthy period of exemplary conduct which ‘we could with confidence lay before the world’ to justify his admission….”

The judge does not dwell on the character witnesses, nor should she. There is actual conduct to be assessed, and against that, the friendly assumptions of colleagues and friends is weak persuasion indeed…or should be.

I don’t know Glass; maybe he has made a miraculous transformation, though my experience in the world tells me that such mid-life character repairs are difficult, rare, usually illusory, and unreliable. My own feeling is that the legal profession already has too many liars in it who were admitted with no prior evidence of character deficiencies. Why would any bar take a chance on a proven liar with a demonstrable talent for deceiving others, based on others he may well have deceived?

[You can read a related post, about a former bank robber seeking bar approval, here.]

12 thoughts on “Can a Lying Journalist Be a Trustworthy Lawyer?

  1. As pointed out, Glass could have gotten any of those endorsements and more while he was committing blatant journalistic dishonesty. They mean nothing. I would have to assume that the two justices of the State Bar Court know that as well. I would hope they are at least that discerning if they are making decisions like this. So why did they rule in his favor? Either they are two of the most gullible attorneys in history, or they don’t really think that he should be disqualified for being untrustworthy. I think if you polled people, quite a few would view such rules as anachronistic, unfair, and paternalistic. He passed the bar exam, why should anyone be able to “rob” him of his accomplishment because of their outmoded view of morality or ethics?
    Sadly, I suspect that two of those three judges don’t believe in the integrity rule but are too cowardly to say so. Rather than refuse to enforce the rule because they don’t believe in it (and probably forfeit their places on that court), they just went along with the ridiculous character endorsements. As they well know, all successful conmen seem trustworthy.

    • I’ve had lawyers argue that John Edwards is STILL fit to practice law. The truth is he was NEVER fit.

      Lawyers hold clients money and are trusted with their lives. The Bar needs to be more stringent in screening applicants (and more strict in screening out lawyers), not less..

      (I know you were not suggesting otherwise, Good points, all.)

  2. The two “judges” who are “State Bar” judges, are not real judges. Catherine Purcell was an actual judge before she retired and became an employee of the State Bar[a public corporation] Remke, and Epstein are so ethically compromised it’s a joke they are even on the “review panel”. Remke only practiced law for three years before she became an aide to a State Senator. Not only is she corrupt she’s an idiot. Epstein is no better.

    • Good to know, though they are real judges in the sense that they are real State Bar judges, just as Westminster Dog Show judges are real dog show judges. So did the real/not real judges, idiots or not, make the right decision?

  3. No they didn’t. When the “judges” of the state bar don’t have to follow law, nor can they determine “constitutional” issues, and don’t even have remedial working knowledge of rules of court, evidence, or criminal law, I don’t think they did, That is a harsh indictment of the Remeke, and Epstein, however, it’s true. These two couldn’t follow the rules of evidence and found them too “complicated” so they whined to the Board of Governors to allow hearsay in to “convict” lawyers. [This violates our state bar act, however, the Supreme Court has abdicated any oversight by refusing to issue decisions regarding the State Bar]The State Bar of California has become a political tool for the Supreme Court to take out lawyers, they cannot touch, in court, and allow attorneys who have been found by the 9th Circuit to have committed fraud on the courts to remain in good standing[they were partners of the State Bar President] as foretold by the dissent of Justice Janice Roger-Brown, in In re Rose. These two judges don’t know the rule of evidence, so how, could they even attempt to adjudicate it? I’m not kidding, Remeke wrote an opinion, that appearing through counsel, and testifying are the same thing!!!! She didn’t even know that they cannot be done by the same person!!!! The hearing court judges are even more ignorant. They think there is a civil equivalent to contempt, and that void orders are enforceable. Yes, you read that right. Our system of jurisprudence in Cal is a mess.

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