Mid-Day Ethics Warm-Up, 1/5/2021: Zombie Lawyers! Imaginary News! Dead Ethics Alarms! Wrong Numbers!

zombie-hand

1. The Florida Bar, protecting us all against unethical zombie lawyers...Last month, the Florida Supreme Court approved that Florida Bar’s decision to disbar Sabrina Starr Spradley, a 41-year-old attorney in private practice in Delray Beach, Florida. She died more than a year ago. The rules do not require another attorney or family member to tell the bar when a lawyer being disciplined has died, so poor Sabrina had to suffer the post mortem indignity of being labeled an unethical lawyer.

“We do have 108,000 lawyers in Florida,” a Florida Bar spokesperson explained. “There are a lot of individuals that we regulate. We rely on people to inform us.”

Why? How hard is it to routinely check the obituaries before wasting the Supreme Court’s time?

2. For the fake news Hall of Fame. Because President Trump is “reportedly” (whatever that means) “considering” flying to Scotland instead of attending Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the Independent reports that Scotland won’t allow him in, because it wouldn’t be “essential” travel. Can a news headline (“Trump not allowed into Scotland to escape Biden inauguration, Sturgeon warns” ) be built on fewer facts than this?

Incidentally, there’s no law requiring an outgoing President to attend the inauguration of a President, and if Trump declines to do so, he would not be the first. He’d be the fourth, following John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson. A gracious transfer of power is always in the best interest of the nation, and Trump would do himself a favor if he just sucked it up and pretended to be a statesman. I doubt that he will.

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Last Gasp Ethics, New Year’s Eve 2020

Happy New Year, Everybody!

1. A late entry in the “Most Unethical Lawyer of 2020” competition! McGinnis E. Hatfield was stripped of his license to practice law by the West Virginia Supreme Court. What did he do? Well, this section of a transcript of his conversation with a female client explains things pretty well:

Female: “I thought like when we first started out, I was just going to pay you. I didn’t know that you wanted sex out of the whole thing.”

Hatfield: “Well, I’d have to charge you like $1,500 bucks. You don’t have $1,500, do you?”

Female: “No.”

Hatfield “So come on out here. Just come. What time do you want to come?… [I]t’s just not going to work unless you do what I say.”

Female: “What do you want me to do?”

Hatfield: “… “Well, I want you to let me eat your pussy, and then I want you to let – I want you to suck my dick, and then, you know, I just have to – I’m as straightforward as I can be. And if you don’t want to do that, then fine. I don’t have any- I like you. And if you don’t want to do that, then we’ll just have to call it off.”

Female: “Is that not – all right. That’s fine. Whatever.”

Hatfield: “Is that okay?”

Female: “I mean no, not really because I’m not a whore.”

Hatfield: ” … And like I said, if you won’t want to do that, then that’s fine by me. I wish you luck. And if you don’t want to do that, then I’m not going to try to represent you. So that’s a benefit for you. And I’ll give you some money, too[.]”… You know, I’m shooting straight with you. I told you from the beginning that sex was important to me. I want some now. Nobody’s tried to trick you. And it would be safe, too. But anyway, if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine by me, honey, but you’ll have to get somebody to help you with your divorce, too.”

Female: “Okay, That’s fine.

Of course, it’s not fine. Lawyers are prohibited from having sex with clients in most jurisdictions. Lawyers cannot encourage individuals, including clients, to commit a crime. Mr. Hatfield compounded his problems when he flunked the easiest part of a disciplinary inquiry, telling the judge who asked Hatfield whether in retrospect, he found his behavior inappropriate or unethical,

“I think my conduct in this whole situation is human. And that’s the only defense I’m offering. Lord knows, we all need that. So that’s as far as I’ll go with that.”

The judge tried again, asking, “Are you remorseful?” Hatfield replied, “No. I have no remorse. I feel like I’ve been victimized.”

What an idiot.

It put me in mind of the Steven Wright line, “How did the fool and his money get together in the first place?”

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“Predator,” “White Christmas” And “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: Among Other Benefits, Freedom Of Expression Is Just A Lot Easier Than Creating And Enforcing Taboos

arnold-mud-face

We were watching “Predator” over the weekend, and saw Arnold Schwarzenegger color his skin black—using mud—to escape the deadly alien’s heat-based vision. Now, why doesn’t this qualify as blackface, thus threatening Arnold with “cancellation” and the film, an action classic, with permanent shelving? Don’t tell me it’s because there is a good reason for Arnold, who is as white as you can get, darkening his skin. We have been told that intentions don’t matter when it comes to this crime against racial justice. Fred Astaire wearing dark make-up to honor his black tap teachers in “Top Hat” is per se racist. Wearing black make-up to portray a black historical character in a private Halloween party is racist. Lawrence Olivier wearing dark make-up to play Othello is racist. Robert Downey, Jr. wearing dark make-up to satirize actors who go to excess to get in character for their roles is racist. Where is the “Exception for someone trying to avoid being killed by a hunter from outer space” written down?

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Merry Christmas, Everyone! And Here Is the Final Chapter of “Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, As Kris Kringle Gets His Day In Court [Updated]

It could be argued that the hearing (it’s not a trial) that serves as the dramatic climax to “Miracle on 34th Street” is the most memorable courtroom scene in movie history. That tells us something, though I’m not sure what. A more legally and ethically absurd spectacle would be difficult to imagine.

When we last saw Kris Kringle—if that indeed is his name—he was preparing to go to a hearing in which his sanity would be determined by a judge. (Insert Marx Brothers “Sanity Clause” joke here.) Lawyer Fred Gailey actually quits his law firm to take on the case, which he is handling pro bono. The hearing will he presided over by a judge played by Gene Lockhart, who has impeccable Christmas movie credentials, having played Bob Cratchit in one of the adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.”

The logical, legal and ethical aspects of the story go off the rails quickly, never to return. Mr. Macy orders Sawyer to have the case dropped, which makes no sense: if Sawyer were suing Kris for assault and battery, of if Macy’s had pressed criminal charges, Macy would have some say. But this is the state of New York saying that Kris is a threat to himself and others because he’s deluded. It’s a state matter now.

Sawyer goes to Fred and tries to get him to drop the case, saying “I represent Mr. Macy.” What, he’s a lawyer now? Not only does Macy have no role in this matter, Fred’s defending Kris, not prosecuting the case.

When Sawyer mentions that Macy’s wants to avoid publicity, Fred sees a little light bulb go on in his skull. “Very interesting,” he says out loud. “Publicity. Hmm. That’s not a bad idea! If I’m going to win this case… I’ll have to have plenty of public opinion!” Except that’s unethical. From New York’s Code of Professional Conduct, which wasn’t in force when the film was made but the principles were:

DR 7-107 [1200.38] Trial Publicity.
A. A lawyer participating in or associated with a criminal or civil matter, or associated in a law firm or government agency with a lawyer participating in or associated with a criminal or civil matter, shall not make an extrajudicial statement that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in that matter….

Saying that one’s client will need publicity to influence public opinion is a clear statement of intent to violate the spirit if not the letter of the ethics rules. Fred breaches the rules again when he goes to see the judge to persuade him not to sign Kris’s commitment papers. In an adversary proceeding, a lawyer must not meet with a judge without opposing counsel present; that an ex parte communication, and strictly forbidden. Of course, it’s also unethical for the judge to let him do it.

That’s not all in the realm of judicial ethics. After suggesting that the fact that Kris says he’s Santa Claus makes his insanity a forgone conclusion, Judge Harper, who is apparently an elected judge (a situation I regard as a “pre-unethical condition”) is visited by his campaign manager, Charlie, an old pol played by none other than William Frawley, now immortal for co-starring in “I Love Lucy” as Fred Mertz. He suggest that Harper withdraw from the case:

“This Kringle case is dynamite. Let some judge handle it that isn’t coming up for reelection..I’m no legal brain trust. I don’t know a habeas from a corpus. But I do know politics. That’s my racket. I got you elected, didn’t I? And I’m gonna try to get you reelected….You’re a Pontius Pilate the minute you start!”

Then the judge’s grandchildren make a convenient entrance, and snub him because he’s being mean to Santa. Later, when the hearing somehow is turned into a referendum on whether Santa is real, Charlie returns with a dire warning:

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Unethical . . . But Funny! Well, Stupid, Really . . .

Gross netting

This week, Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knill ordered the billionaire bond investor Bill Gross and his partner Amy Schwartz, to stop violating the noise ordinances of the Laguna Beach municipal code by playing the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song music on their outdoor speakers. Evidence showed that music was played so loudly it could be heard inside neighbor Mark Towfiq’s—he’s also a billionaire— home despite concrete construction and half-inch-thick, dual-pane windows.

Why was the couple inflicting the infamous earworm on their neighbor? It seems the music started when Towfiw objected to the Gross estate erecting the ugly plastic netting around a huge glass sculpture that they had installed in their back yard. When he complained, Gross, 76, and Schwartz, 51 retaliated by claiming their neighbor was a Peeping Tom. Then the the couple started inviting him to sit right down as they told a tale about a three hour tour, night after night.

The litigation, which involved teams of high-priced lawyers on both sides, commenced November 9. A city code enforcement official testified that Gross and Schwartz said they would lower the music if Towfiq dropped his complaint about the sculpture. Towfiq’s lawyers presented a text from Gross responding to their client’s request to turn down the music in which Gross wrote, “Peace on all fronts or well just have nightly concerts big boy.”

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Pre-Christmas Panic Ethics Warm-Up, 12/18/2020: “The Virus Made Me Do It!!”

I have to give Harry a callout: his Christmas classic is the only recording on the Sirius-XM Christmas Traditions channel sung by a still-living singer. Harry’s 93 now and the clock is ticking. His voice is shot, and he has become progressively more radical, angry and bitter over the years. But ah, what a great and transformative talent he was!

I also note that just this week, YouTube has slapped ads on all its songs and movie clips. Of course it has.

Why am I panicked? Oh, the tree’s not up, its a pine and too soft to hold about 40% of our cherished ornaments,we’re behind on other decorations, no shopping has been done, and “there’s plenty of time” suddenly mutated into “Holy crap! There’s only a week left!” At least Christmas decorations around the neighborhood are at an all-time high. I’ve been walking Spuds around to see them: boy, those huge inflatable lawn things are horrible. What does an Imperial Walker have to do with Christmas? Spuds tried to kill a giant inflatable Nutcracker Prince. I was proud of him…

1. This is, in short, a lie. “COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the U.S.” says an editorial published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This false and intentionally fear-mongering conclusion is in part based on the U.S. practice of calling every death of someone who was diagnosed with the illness a death caused by the illness. That’s ridiculous. Three researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, cite current daily mortality rates to show that COVID-19 has now surpassed heart disease and cancer as the leading daily cause of death in the U.S. “It’s been a long time since an infectious disease was the leading cause of death for the whole country,” said lead author Steven Woolf, M.D., director emeritus of VCU’s Center on Society and Health. “And it’s a tragic milestone we could’ve prevented.” As for that last statement, prove it, without a time machine. Meanwhile, it appears that Wuhan virus-“caused” deaths also include deaths from other causes that killed people because they put off getting medical treatment.

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The “White Christmas” Ethics Guide 2020

2020 Introduction

I have some very dear friends who are still angry with me for writing this admittedly harsh analysis of their favorite Christmas movie. Maybe that’s why I didn’t post it last Christmas season; I don’t know. It really is an ethics mess, however, and as I’ve stated elsewhere this week on Ethics Alarms, if you are going to make an ethics movie, someone involved ought to have functioning ethics alarms. The heartwarming ending—I still get misty when the old general played by Dean Jagger, gets saluted and serenaded by his reunited army unit—doesn’t make up for all the gratuitous lying and betraying going on in the rest of the film.

I have never mentioned this here before, but the movie was the result of an ethical act by one of the most unlikely people imaginable, Danny Kaye. If you search for Danny here, you will find that I have more connections to him than to any other entertainer, primarily through my co-writing and direction of an original musical about him, written by his long-time publicist and my friend. I credited Kaye with my interest in performing, musicals, and comedy, but my research into the real man was disheartening: in stark contrast to his persona and his public image, Danny was a miserable, paranoid, selfish, mean and insecure sociopath when he wasn’t playing “Danny Kaye,” which could be on stage or off it. “White Christmas” had been conceived as a re-make of “Holiday Inn” with the same cast, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Fred couldn’t do the project, so his part was re-written for Donald O’Connor, who became ill so close shooting that there was no time to retool the script and have the film ready for its target holiday release. In desperation, the producers asked Kaye if he would play Bing’s side-kick even though it meant 1) playing a support, which he had never done in a movie since becoming a star 2) playing a role that couldn’t highlight his special talents 3) subordinate himself to Bing Crosby, who was indeed the bigger star and box office draw, and most daring of all, expose his own limitations by doing dance numbers created for Donald O’Connor. Kaye was not a trained dancer, just a gifted mimic and athlete who could do almost anything well. Danny (actually Sylvia, his wife, agent and and career Svengali) had his price for the rescue: he demanded $200,000 and 10% of the gross.

Everyone around Danny Kaye was shocked that he agreed to all of this. Not only did he agree, he also amazed everyone by not playing the under-appreciated star on set, by doing O’Connor’s choreography as well as he did, and by knowing how not to steal focus from the star, something he infamously refused to do when he was in “Lady in the Dark” with Gertrude Lawrence. The movie was the top grossing film of 1954, and the most successful movie musical up to that time.

Danny’s good deed was punished, because today it is by far the most seen of his films, and is likely to be the source of his public image as time goes on. Yet it is not his best movie, or a fair representation of what made him a unique and popular supporter. Like Darren McGavin, a fine and versatile dramatic actor cursed to be remembered only as the father in “A Christmas Story,” Danny’s slice of immortality also minimizes his legacy and talent. Watch “The Court Jester.” With your kids or grandchildren.

1. The First Scene

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“My Cousin Vinny” Meets Zoom

vinny

Once again I have to say “I don’t understand this story at all.

If you recall “My Cousin Vinny,” as almost all lawyers do (and fondly), Joe Pesci’s fish-out-of-water defense lawyer annoyed imposing Southern judge Fred Gwynn by first appearing in court wearing a leather jacket, and then showing up in the suit above because it was the only one he could acquire at short notice.

At least he tried.

While Ethics Alarms has taken the unalterable position that when children are forced to attend school via Zoom, what may appear in their homes are not, in fact, “in school,” a lawyer who appears before a judge via Zoom is still, in fact, “in court” and before a judge. Why? Because the judge says so, that’s why. And as Vinnie soon learned, when a judge says “Jump!” the only responsible response is “How high, Your Honor?”

Perhaps a Delaware lawyer named Weisbrot has never seen the movie. He complained to Delaware Vice Chancellor Joseph R. Slights III i ex parte “that [the court] would not consider an application from him because he “was not wearing a tie.” The Vice Chancellor responded, “That is true, as the record reflects.” BUT…

What the record also reflects is that Mr. Weisbrot appeared in court for trial (via Zoom) on Tuesday in either a printed tee-shirt or pajamas (it was difficult to discern).

In other words, “It’s true you weren’t wearing a tie, but a greater problem is THAT YOU WERE WEARING FREAKING PAJAMAS!”

Mr. Wiesbrot responded by channeling his inner (and outer) Vinnie by, in his next appearance via Zoom before the same judge, in something less than the kind of attire he had to know the judge expected:

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“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion,Chapter 5: Boy, This Guy Sure Doesn’t ACT Like He’s Santa!

Bellevue ride

(The Introduction is here.; Chapter I is here.;Chapter 2 is here; Chapter 3 is here; Chapter 4 is here.)

Everything so far has been laying the foundation for the climactic and justly famous courtroom scene. But before that can happen, there needs to be a pretext for getting the story into court. Of course, the fact that Kris committed assault and battery on Mr. Sawyer would normally be enough to get him there on a criminal charge, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with Santa Claus, so we have a lot of dubious plot machinations that make no sense at all. in rapid succession—got to get to that courtroom scene!—we get…

Sawyer’s Perfidy

First, Sawyer acts like he’s been grievously wounded so he can credibly insist that Kris be committed. He’s a liar as well as a weasel. He’s also not very bright. He knows Macy’s has been using Kris a public relations cornucopia. He has to know that in any feud with a store Santa Claus who has made money for Macy’s, he’ll lose. Sawyer’s antipathy towards Kris to his own likely detriment makes no sense at all.

Doris’s Failure

Doris refuses to have anything to do with sending Kris to Bellevue, the NYC mental hospital, to be examined. She is, however, unlike Sawyer, responsible for Kris, and has said as much. Her duty is to Macy’s, and her employee attacked someone. This is where conflicts of interest get you in the workplace, and she should have seen this coming. Her job is to fix the problem, and instead she acts helpless. I find this to be nascent sexism in the film: “just like a woman,” Doris is being sentimental when she needs to be practical and decisive.

Actress Maureen O’Hara, a notorious tough proto-feminist, must have been seething.

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Saturday Ethics Nightcap,12/12/2020: Bad Journalism, Bad Governors, Bad Santas

nightcap

That’s just ginger ale, in case you’re wondering…

1. “Nah, there’s no outrageous, flagrant, shameless mainstream media bias!” April Ryan, arguably the worst, most unethical, most biased and most unprofessional of CNN’s reporters (but it’s such a lively competition), attacked the confidential sources responsible for leaking a recording of Joe Biden making weaselly comments about his stance toward the “defund the police” movement. Ryan demanded to know who was responsible for allowing the embarrassing comments to be made public, because, as we all should know by now, the job of the media isn’t to report the facts, but to empower and protect Democrats. (She didn’t come out and say the last part, but after her performance over the last four years, she doesn’t have to.) Jonathan Turley appropriately nailed this one:

The fact is that Ryan was just stating what has become the approach of many in the media. As we recently discussed, we are moving dangerously close to a de facto state media with the cooperation of Big Tech companies.  Ryan believes that it is outrageous to rely on unapproved material if it is critical of Joe Biden (despite her use of such material for the last four years against Trump)…CNN has not expressed any disagreement with Ryan’s view of the new journalism.

2. Santa Claus Ethics: If you can’t do any better than these Santas, you shouldn’t even try. But they do provide one reason to be grateful for social distancing. I think my favorite is this one…

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