I apologize for missing this wonderful story from last week.
In a civil forfeiture case hearing held via Zoom in Texas’ 394th Judicial District Court, Rod Ponton, a county attorney in Presidio County, Texas, couldn’t figure out how to turn off a filter he had somehow turned on. That filter made him appear to be a talking kitten.
“Mr. Ponton, I believe you have a filter turned on in the video settings,” Judge Roy Ferguson, presiding over the case, says with admirable restraint. “Augggh,” says. Ponton. “Can you hear me, Judge? I don’t know how to remove it. I’ve got my assistant here and she’s trying to.”
Then he adds, “I’m prepared to go forward with it. I’m here live” and “I’m not a cat.” “I can see that, ”Judge Ferguson replies.
Here’s the video:
Shortly thereafter, the problem was fixed, returning the lawyer to human form.
Legal ethics blogger Jan Jacobitz is inclined to be charitable, writing, “So while it remains a tenet of ethics and professionalism to understand the benefits and disadvantages of technology, it’s great to see that a bit of patience and a touch of humor go a long way towards maintaining grace and dignity in our profession.” He was referring to the fact that the judge was sympathetic, tweeting later,
“These fun moments are a by-product of the legal profession’s dedication to ensuring that the justice system continues to function in these tough times. Everyone involved handled it with dignity, and the filtered lawyer showed incredible grace. True professionalism all around!”
Wrong. “True professionalism” required that the lawyer know how to use the technology necessary to discharge his duties in the hearing. The rules are quite clear on that point. Ethically, it was a breach of duty for Ponton to agree to continue while appearing as a talking feline, even if the judge agreed. How could he know if his client would be prejudiced by arguments coming out of a cute kitten’s mouth rather than a human attorney? I’m not joking about this: appearing before a judge looking like a cat is a disability, just like being drunk. The judge should not have allowed it.
Moreover, Ponton later blamed his assistant for the fiasco, because he was using her computer. What was a cat filter doing on a legal secretary’s office computer? Ponton, Rule 5.3 says, is responsible for making certain that non-lawyer assistants understand their lawyer supervisors ethical obligations. She had a duty to keep her computer appropriately usable by Ponton. She had a duty to make sure he didn’t end up looking like a cat. Her breach of duty is her breach of ethics.
Ponton was fortunate that the judge was so understanding, but the “tough/trying/difficult times” excuse is now a rationalization for incompetence, and not just in the law.
To slightly alter the famous opinion in which the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was applied by the Mississippi Supreme Court to a plug of tobacco that had a desiccated toe in it:
“We can imagine no reason why, with ordinary care, [lawyers could not avoid appearing as cats in hearings]. and if [lawyers DO appear as cats] it seems to us that somebody has been very careless.”