Ethics Quiz: The Bank Robber Professor

A few weeks ago the Washington Post published the unusual story of  Shon Hopwood, a member of the D.C. Bar and  a tenure-track faculty member at the Georgetown University Law Center. He spent 11 years in federal prison for robbing banks n Nebraska—that’s banks, plural—became a jailhouse “lawyer,” got  a scholarship to law school, was somehow approved as meeting the character provisions required for bar membership, and now amuses his Georgetown law students with tales about how when he played basketball in federal prison, he had to carry a shank in case his team started to lose.

You should read his story, which I’m sure will enrich Hopwood in  a movie deal, if it hasn’t already, but you shouldn’t have to read it before you answer today’s Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Should a convicted bank robber be teaching law students?

I got in an argument over the case with a D.C. Superior Court judge last week. You can guess what she said: “I believe in redemption.”

I believe in redemption, I guess, although I know it occurs about 3% of the time that people claim redemption, if that. However, there is no reason that redemption has to include counter-intuitive trust. “Does redemption mean that a bank should hire a rehabilitated bank robber? Does it mean a company should install him as its treasurer or its accountant?” I asked the judge. She didn’t answer me.

Being a convicted felon means that many things law-abiding citizens can do are limited or forbidden. Among them, sometimes with state variations, are

Voting

Being a juror

Possessing any firearm or ammunition

Service in the Armed Forces.

Serving as a police officer

Being granted various Federal Licenses.

Traveling to Canada without a special application

But an ex-felon teaching young men and women about the law, how to be a lawyer, and the requirements of the profession raises no red flags?

I don’t understand how and why the District found that a former bank robber was an acceptable candidate for a law license. Stephen Glass, a former star journalist who was publicly disgraced for being revealed as a liar who made up many of his stories,  was rejected for admission to the California bar because it was felt that his dishonesty in another profession more than a decade ago disqualified him. (Glass got his law degree at…Georgetown Law Center.) Stephen Glass, however, committed no crime, and was never convicted or jailed. I have found very few lawyers sympathetic to Glass, yet several who get all misty-eyed about the redemption of Shon Hopwood. How does the profession reconcile this?

I haven’t met Professor Hopson, but I might: I’m around the Law Center, my alma mater and former employer where I founded a still-active student theater company, frequently. I bet he’s charming, engaging and impressive. I bet I would like him. I bet I would feel bad about writing this. Nonetheless, people who set out to break the law and do so by committing major crimes should not be enforcing the law, practicing law, or teaching law. They cannot be trusted, no matter how charming they are, or how far they have come since their release.

There are many other ways they can be redeemed, and I wish them all the success in the world pursuing them..

___________________

Pointer: Lost the name of my tipster! Whoever you are, thanks!

40 Comments

Filed under Character, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, Religion and Philosophy, Workplace

40 responses to “Ethics Quiz: The Bank Robber Professor

  1. Rick M

    Worked well for Frank Abagnale.

    • Good point, but as I recall, Frank was basically drafted as part of his sentence into consulting with the FBI on the very types of crimes he committed, then continued in that line after he served his time. Frank proved himself effective and trustworthy during his unpaid consulting, so I’m wondering what the equivalent would be for a former bank robber proving he’s trustworthy with a law degree.

    • Update: I just read his story in the WP, and it’s actually similar to Abagnale’s, he basically started doing paralegal work for himself and his fellow inmates, and it looks like he had a knack for it. So since he’s already shown competence and trustworthiness for this kind of thing, I’m inclined to think it’s okay.

      Now, to Jack’s hypothetical “Does redemption mean that a bank should hire a rehabilitated bank robber? Does it mean a company should install him as its treasurer or its accountant?” I would say absolutely not, because that would be putting him too close to the same kind of cookie jar he was caught with.

  2. Spartan

    That was me. 🙂

  3. Wayne

    My question is could he run for Federal Office as a Congressman or something? He’d be a natural: A likable law professor at a prestigious university. He’d be perfect for the Ways and Means Comittee.

    • He would have to run as a Democrat to win.

      Before your bias kicks in, I think either party would accept him: they are all crooks. But the press would destroy him should he run as anything but Democrat

  4. I find it easier to accept the rehabilitation of someone like Hopwood than the career reassignment of Glass. Glass might be perceived as someone who had no need to lie but did it because of laziness and his true moral character. Hopwood might be perceived as someone who felt they had no choice but to commit his crimes to survive and when faced with years in federal prison, decided he would do everything he could to buck the almost certain statistic that accompanies recidivism and improve his chances at a successful second life. Glass, paid a price for his lack of honesty, but it’s difficult for him to prove he had a life changing moment for it and why a life of a lawyer is going to be different than his past life as a journalist.

    Now, I haven’t read Hopwood’s tale, so I suspect I could completely turn on him depending on the specifics, but I can at least see a possibility. I think understanding those specifics are crucial to answering the quiz appropriately, as it pertains to Hopwood. However, for a general response to the quiz devoid any specifics, as usual:

    ….it depends.

    • You should read his story. Judge Kopf has written a couple of times about Shon (for whom he was the trial judge).

      That Jack would denigrate Shon is…

      Well, I might say it was of “signature significance,” but that would actually be far too kind.

      • I will make the same point about any bank-robber who wants to teach law after showing complete disrespect for the law. I deplore the conduct and what it signifies. I do not denigrate the man.

        Get a dictionary.

  5. Ash

    > was somehow approved as meeting the character provisions required for bar membership

    Is there anyway to find how that happened?

    • His multiple successful writs for cert to the USSC likely had something to do with it, as well as his clerking for a judge in the Circuit Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

      I somehow suspect Judge Brown (who Jack probably HAS met) would not think well of such a narrow view of what makes someone fit to practice (or teach) the law.

  6. Pete sez howdy

    I guess it varies by state, but what do “the character provisions required for bar membership” generally boil down to?

  7. John Billingsley

    “I haven’t met Professor Hopson, but I might: I’m around the Law Center, my alma mater and former employer where I founded a still-active student theater company, frequently.” I’m OK with this Professor Hobson guy being an attorney. Not so sure about Hopwood but he might be a good security consultant for banks and teach the police something about catching bank robbers. Maybe he could team up with Frank Abagnale.

  8. E2 (nee Elizabeth I)

    Redemption hell! Why in the world would GULC even accept a felon into its degree program, much less hire him as a professor? And the DC Bar — famous for its ethics opinions…

    Lawyers moan and wail about their (presumably) unfair representation of the profession in the media and elsewhere: Well, they’d better all get to their alma maters and their bar associations to stop this nonsense. Right now it’s on lawyers themselves to — as stated in the Rules of Professional Conduct — to police themselves. Ethical lawyers stand up! Object to this, for your own reputations and the reputation of your profession.

    This is depressing. Georgetown Law Center doesn’t need this guy: its reputation is sound. And the DC Bar? Bar associations can disbar attorneys for not paying their taxes, or for the ‘appearance of impropriety,” for example, but they accept a felon as a member of the Bar?

    What the heck is going on here?

    P.S,: Doctors and policemen also have to learn to cross the line (blue, red, whatever) and call out the unethical in their professions.

  9. Great quiz.

    My mental energies are spent after this week of arguing against Lefties who refuse to be logical and deliberative, so this will be a summary.

    It seems to me the concern is not whether or not he can adequately teach law, but where or not he can adequately empahsize the seriousness of law itself as a philosophical concept.

    I don’t know where I fall on this. I want to say if he’s made it this far is his studies and abilities, that alone may be enough to demonstrate a belief In the seriousness of the law. But then, I judgmentallt look at people like Jordan Balfour, who supposedly repented from his fall, now merely teaches successful sales tactics, never mind that he advertises them as “IF you were unethical you could control your friends and family using my techniques”…. so I don’t know how to judge his redemption…

    It’s like technology, being really good at something is like havejng advanced technology… you can either use it for really good objectives or really bad objectives as opposed to barely good or barely bad objectives without the advantage.

    But with law? I don’t know…it seems like the entire effort to learn it and summarily teach it (without concern for his lessons apparently) might be sufficient to say he handles the most important aspect of teaching law: that is the philosophical importance of LAW itself…

    • Oh oops…

      My bad; I forgot gratuitous lawyer abuse:

      Seriously though… he only robbed banks… have you seen what actual lawyers charge for their services??? And they are endorsed by the state to practice!

      • “I have found very few lawyers sympathetic to Glass, yet several who get all misty-eyed about the redemption of Shon Hopwood. How does the profession reconcile this?”

        Shon is a lawyer. They are desensitized to crime, as they know who wrote the laws, why they wrote them, and that sometimes the definition of criminal turns on interpretation.

        Alternate theory: Glass was not a crook, and Shon was, therefore a member of the club 😉

  10. I’ve worked very hard to not comment here, Jack, but this demands it.

    Shon has worked his ass off to get to where he is. For most lawyers, Character and Fitness is a formality. Even I will have a stupidly easy time with my 2 DUIs from (by the time it matters) nearly 2 decades prior will have an idiotically simple pass through C&F. Shon managed to not only excel in law School, and clerk for an federal appellate judge (in DC no less), but wrote a couple of successful writs for cert ot the Supreme Court, and did other work on appeals for inmates during his time in prison.

    Do you know what he teaches at Georgetown?

    Appellate Litigation.

    I defy you to explain how he is not qualified to teach that topic.

    And as an aside, the fact that you draw the Glass parallel is fascinating. Glass never took responsibility for what he did, and what responsibility he has taken has been long after the fact. Shon, on the other hand, did so from the start.

    That you would run him down is, frankly, disgusting.

    • joed68

      Disgusting, sir; most disgusting😄

      • You both miss the points: you are making a straw man arguement as well.

        1. Jack did not run Shon down. He asked an ethical question, which would apply to any felon in this position. That he asked it of this particular case highlights that ethics are tough to maintain. If this case is fine, what about this other guy, who is not so virtuous? Where is the line?

        2. This is an ETHICS blog. The approach is not news, or entertainment. All angles Jack covers are ethics related.

        You both reacted as if asking the question was wrong in and of itself. Why is that?

    • You’re completely wrong. I didn’t run him down at all. I dealt with his background and qualifications as a template: nothing personal. No convicted felon for a property crime…even moreso that a crime of violence–can be called trustworthy. The man robbed banks, more than one, as an adult. Explain why he shouldn’t teach Appellate Litigation? Piece of cake: the practice requires integrity and honest. Appellate briefs often breach the rules. This professor has proven that when it benefits him to def the law, he will. He’s a bad role model, and law-breakers cannot be trusted to stand up for the law. Easy and obvious.

      As for your other misbegotten arguments:

      Shon has worked his ass off to get to where he is.

      So has Glass. So have lawyers disbarred for life for felonies far less serious than what Shon did. A lawyer who loses his license for a felony will NEVER be reinstated in most cases, and the character standards for entering the profession are supposed to be more stringent than the standards for staying in it. He’s worked hard. Good for him. There are plenty of great professions that don’t require the level of trust Lawyers must have.

      For most lawyers, Character and Fitness is a formality.

      Well, yeah, since most aspiring lawyers aren’t bank robbers. (To be a lawyer, you also should be capable of better arguments than this.)

      Even I will have a stupidly easy time with my 2 DUIs from (by the time it matters) nearly 2 decades prior will have an idiotically simple pass through C&F.

      The character process focuses primarily on honesty: did the applicant “lie, cheat or steal.” Those are NOT easy to get bars to shrug off: you don’t know what you are talking about. Here’s a pop quiz: Which felony involves lying, cheating or stealing, DUI, or BANK ROBBING? For a special bonus point, which of the three is BANK ROBBING?

      Shon managed to not only excel in law School, and clerk for an federal appellate judge (in DC no less), but wrote a couple of successful writs for cert ot the Supreme Court, and did other work on appeals for inmates during his time in prison.

      Glass also excelled in a similar manner. And so what? People who are dishonest and untrustworthy can still be smart and work hard. These are not related traits. Man disbarred lawyers worked as hard as human beings can work. Diligence is just one professional ethics requirement. That’s one box checked. Competence is another.

      Then there is trustworthiness and honesty.

  11. John Billingsley

    I know of a doctor in Florida who was able to regain a medical license after serving federal time for a drug charge. My understanding is that practice was limited in that the doctor could not write prescriptions for controlled substances. In this case, the doctor already had many years experience prior to the conviction and loss of license.

    I don’t know about being accepted to medical school. I feel that someone who was convicted of one of the stupid thing that younger people sometimes do, stealing a car or breaking into an unoccupied dwelling both of which are third degree felonies in Florida, might be considered depending on the mitigating circumstances. I would hope the same would be true for law school. I believe people should be given a chance for redemption after an episode of “young and really stupid” depending on the circumstances. I think a string of five bank robberies should keep you from putting “M.D.” after your name.

    • joed68

      I got into med school with a felony conviction, but it was for possession of an assault weapon. Fortunately, we’re not at the point where gun possession is considered an irredeemable character flaw, yet.

    • John Billingsley

      As far as I know, in Florida possession of an “assault” weapon is not against the law unless it is fully automatic. Bet you had to jump through a lot of extra hoops. Glad you got in. Good luck.

    • There’s not a similar correlation between practicing law and medicine: there’s no reason a felony conviction should make a doctor untrustworthy. Doctors don’t handle clients’ money or advise people about the law. There is no good reason I can think of that would stop an ex-felon from teaching how to set a bone or extract a tumor.

      • John Billingsley

        “Nonetheless, people who set out to break the law and do so by committing major crimes should not be enforcing the law, practicing law, or teaching law. They cannot be trusted, no matter how charming they are, or how far they have come since their release.

        To me the gist of what you said is, “People who set out to break the law and do so by committing major crimes cannot be trusted.” I agree and for that reason they should not be practicing medicine. An individual must be able to place absolute trust in the provider who is going to be advising and treating them or their family members for potentially life and death matters. I want to know as best I can that my doctor’s moral compass is in working order. My attorney could cost me money or give me poor legal advice but outside of poorly defending me in a capital case, he can’t literally kill me.

        Teaching with no patient care responsibilities would be a different situation and the degree of expertise and teaching ability would be paramount. But even then should we have someone whose moral compass leads them so far astray being a role model for physicians in training?

  12. Other Bill

    Bernardine Dohrn
    Bernardine Dohrn NLN cropped.jpg
    Dohrn at 2007 reunion of SDS

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernardine_Dohrn

    There’s nothing with which lawyers are more enamored and deferential to, to the point of mindless awe, than raw brain power. It’s a problem.

    • Other Bill

      The photo didn’t come through. It’s of Comrade Bernardine smiling broadly at the SDS reunion. She’s a peach.

      • Other Bill

        And she taught at Northwestern Law School and worked at Sidley and Austin because her father in law was a senior exec at the power company, a big S&A client. The line from the managing partner at S&A: “We take care of our own.”

        Law schools are as infected as the rest of the American academy.

  13. For clarification, though it’s amazing that I should have to say it: Calling an ex-bank robber an ex-bank robber is not denigration, since he is, in fact, an ex-bank robber. Explaining what is the matter with ex-bank robbers is not denigrating any particular ex-bank robber, who may be the salt of the earth in other respects, but it would still not change the immutable fact that he is an ex-bank robber. Now, he may choose to feel that his class, ex-bank robbers, is being unfairly impugned, but he, as an individual, is not.

    Happy to clear this point up for you, Scott.

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