Ethics Train Wreck Update: Now The Dictionary People Have Boarded The Post-2016 Election Freakout

It’s really depressing. I did not expect to see so many professions and professionals debase themselves and their ethical principles because they couldn’t deal with the results of a presidential election. . Historians. Judges. Scientists. Professors. College presidents and administrators. Performing artists. Intelligence community professionals. Judges. Journ–well, no, that one wasn’t a surprise.

My own profession, legal ethicists, booked a seat on the ethics train wreck, a development that was profoundly disappointing. Wrote one member of the profession who has remained clear -eyed while keeping his integrity, Steve Lubet in Slate,  “As a liberal Democrat, I have no sympathy for Conway’s habitual disregard for truth. As a professor of legal ethics, however, I think this complaint is dangerously misguided and has the potential to set a terrible precedent…The professors no doubt have faith in the professionalism of the District of Columbia Office of Disciplinary Counsel, but the bar authorities in other states may not always be reliably even-handed or apolitical. It is hardly inconceivable that lawyer discipline might somewhere be used as a weapon against disfavored or minority candidates, or as a means to squelch protest movements and insurgent campaigns. In the 1940s and 1950s, suspected Communists and alleged “fellow travelers” found their law licenses in jeopardy in many states. In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights lawyers were hauled before the bar authorities in the South. The complaint against Conway is an unfortunate step back in the direction of using lawyer discipline against political enemies….”

Bingo.

Now “America’s dictionary,” Merriam-Webster, has decided that it is within its mission and purview to attack and mock the President of the United States..

Almost immediately after his election, the dictionary’s editors began trolling Trump and his administration, defined, by Merriam-Webster, as “to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments or other disruptive content.”

The website Acculturated has observed that on social media and its website Merriam-Webster has  ridiculed the President  “for his every spelling mistake, grammatical error, and verbal gaffe. In honor of the election, they changed their header photo to a picture of a German word defined as the “collapse of a society or regime marked by catastrophic violence and disorder.” Then they highlighted what they claimed was the word most frequently looked-up, “fascism.” On Inauguration Day, they tweeted “Welp,” a word that conveys dismay or disappointment. The company also derided Betsy DeVos, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, and, of course, Kellyanne Conway.

This, needless to say, is not their job, their mission, or responsible professional conduct. It is, as it is for the other derailed professionals, smug virtue signalling and tribalism. Acculturated again:

[T]he dictionary’s editors are clearly partisan. They didn’t harass Hillary Clinton, and they don’t needle sports stars, celebrities, or, well . . . anyone else like they needle the President and his people.Theoretically, even that could be okay—a good, playful, occasional joke from the dictionary could have the whole country laughing. But if you mock one person too often, you start to reveal a pattern. If that pattern persists, the fun and games lose their light-hearted feel, and begin to betray bias instead.

Ya think???

Continue reading

The Unethical, Depressing, Bar Complaint Against Kellyanne Conway

kellyanneThis post is one I do not want to write, and the fact that I have to write it is profoundly depressing. It requires me to criticize, indeed blow the whistle on,  professional colleagues in the fields of law and ethics, some of whom I know and admired very much, as well as fellow members of the District of Columbia Bar. Some of these colleagues are also members, like I am, in a distinguished association dedicated to the field of legal ethics. A superb book on the topic by one of the professors involved  sits in a prominent place in my office bookshelf.  I can see it right now.

Yesterday evening, I learned that a group of fifteen law professors and lawyers have filed a professional misconduct complaint against White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, claiming that she violated the Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys by giving false statements to the media. The fifteen signed the complaint, which was filed with the D.C. Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel. When I read the names, signed on a statement printed upon the official stationery of Abbe Smith, a distinguished full time professor at my alma mater, (and where I worked in the administration for four years), Georgetown University Law Center, my heart sank. While I did not need to read the whole complaint to know it was contrived and intellectually dishonest nonsense, I did, and it fulfilled my worst fears. The anti-President Trump hysteria that has caused so many previously fair and rational citizens on the Left to behave atrociously and to betray their previously held values has officially infected lawyers in the legal ethics field. They are now riding the rails on the 2016 Post Election Ethics Train Wreck.

To be absolutely clear and unambiguous: the complaint is a political attack, and a cheap shot at the President of the United States through his staff. There is no merit to any of its contentions.

The professors claim that they were “compelled” to file the complaint because D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 8.3 (a) requires that

“A lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects, shall inform the appropriate professional authority.”

They are either addled by partisan political animus or lying, because there is no way, no way, these fifteen professors could know that, or even validly conclude it, based on what they have written in the complaint. To call their accusations against Conway a stretch is to be too kind. They are forced, exaggerated, trivial and manufactured. From what I have read in past commentary and opinions of several of them regarding other matters of lawyer misconduct, I have serious doubts about whether they believe them. I know that’s a serious charge, but I see no other explanation, other than temporary insanity.

To begin with, Kellyanne Conway is not working in a legal position in Trump’s White House. She is Counselor to the President, not White House Counsel. The President and Conway may choose, for his protection, to treat her non-legal policy advisor position as a legal representation, but the fact remains that she is not providing legal advice and services, only policy-related ones. Now, lawyers can violate D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4, Misconduct, while not engaged in the practice of law, but unless the conduct involved is criminal or displays “moral turpitude” sufficient to call into question the lawyer’s fitness to practice the likelihood of the conduct being regarded as sanctionable by the Bar is vanishingly slim.

From everything I can determines, Conway, though she is a member of the New Jersey Bar and an inactive (she needs to pay back dues and take my mandatory D.C. Bar ethics course before she can practice) member of the District Bar, has not practiced law in more than 20 years. She has been a pollster, an activist, a flack and TV personality as well as candidate  Trump’s campaign manager, but none of her professional profiles refer to her as a lawyer. The complaint alleges that Conway “engage(d) in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation” in breach of D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 (c), and did so while not engaged in the practice of law.  In order to bring down the wrath of the Bar, such conduct must be extremely serious, criminal or bordering on it. Rule 8.3 “limits the reporting obligation to those offenses that a self–regulating profession must vigorously endeavor to prevent.” What kind of non-law-related “offenses” must “a self–regulating profession…vigorously endeavor to prevent”?  It is well established that questionable statements that an individual with a law license utters in the course of political activity and advocacy is not such conduct. Continue reading

Sometimes It All Comes Together…But First, A Song!

As those who have read here for a while know, among my fondest passions, virtually life-long, are baseball,  theater and ethics. Today, I have the pleasure of seeing them all come together in a single event. How often does that happen?

At noon, I will be giving my most recent musical Continuing Legal Education ethics seminar, “Ethics Cabaret,” at Nationals Park in D.C. prior to the Mets-Nats game. “Ethics Cabaret,” like its six predecessors, presents legal ethics hypotheticals  as parodies of pop, rock, Broadway or country-western standards, presented by a professional performer. In this case, the performer is American Century Theater veteran Esther Covington, who accompanies herself on the keyboard. I write the songs that make the young lawyers cry, but she sings them, beautifully and often hilariously.

Speaking of Barry Manilow, my favorite segment of the seminar is the parody of one of his signature songs, which you can hear above—it’s an ear-worm, so be careful. The legal ethics version is about “Bridge of Spies” and the many quandaries raised in the film, which I examined in this post earlier this year. The parody is called “Who is the Client?,” lyrics-only copyrighted by ProEthics. Here they are….you can sing them along with Barry’s version! Continue reading

Gene Autry Misinformation Update: Believe It Or Not, It Happened Again!

"Wild Bill" Donovan, who should have had nothing whatever to do with my ethics seminar today, but did anyway...

“Wild Bill” Donovan, who should have had nothing whatever to do with my ethics seminar today, but did anyway…

Yesterday I wrote about a lawyer in a legal ethics seminar interrupting me with a revelation about Gene Autry that was completely false.

Today I taught another legal ethics seminar, this time for a government agency. I was discussing was the various government ethics dilemmas in “Bridge of Spies,” the story of how lawyer Jim Donovan helped secure the release of downed U.S. flyer Francis Gary Powers in a famous incident during the Cold War. Many of the issues covered in my presentation were explored in this Ethics Alarms post.

As the film portrays it, Donovan, an insurance lawyer, does such a tenacious job defending an accused Soviet spy from U.S. government prosecution that the CIA recruits him to broker the trade of his now-former client, convicted and in prison, for Powers. In discussing the classic government lawyer dilemma of “who is the client?,”  I noted that the CIA agent who recruited Donovan told him that he would have no client. “Why did the CIA trust Donovan?” I asked socraticly. “Why did Donovan, an insurance lawyer, think he was qualified to engage in this kind of representation, it it was a representation?”

For the second time in nine days, an attendee piped up with an amazing piece of information.

“I suspect some of the answer to both questions is that James Donovan was the son of “Wild Bill” Donovan, who is considered the father of the Central Intelligence Agency,” he said. Continue reading

The Real Legal Ethics Conundrums In “Bridge of Spies”

bridge-of-spies

Quite a few readers have written that they would enjoy some of the problems I present in my seminars on legal ethics. I try to please, so here are some difficult legal ethics issues that arose in the screenplay of last year’s Oscar-nominated film “Bridge of Spies.”

I wrote about the film earlier this year, here.

The film tells the true story of Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is recruited, in 1957, by his New York bar association to take on the representation of the accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, a job that we see Donovan not only do bravely and competently, but one that he takes all the way to the Supreme Court. He loses, and Abel goes to prison.

Legal ethics points:

  • That ends the representation, and Abel is no longer Donovan’s client, but a former client.
  • Lawyers still have duties to former clients: they must keep all of the confidences learned during the representation and after, and not use these against the interests of the ex-client, or reveal them ever, even after the ex-client is dead and buried, except under rare circumstances.
  • A lawyer is also not allowed to become adverse to the interests of a former client in a substantially related matter to the one he (or she) handled for the client.

Because when representing Abel, Donovan had argued against executing the spy on the grounds that he might a useful  bargaining chip if an American was captured by the Russians—an argument he made to save Abel’s life, not to provide unsolicited advice to the government—the capture of U2 pilot Gary Powers after he was shot down in a spy plane makes the lawyer a candidate to make his own scenario come true. An East German official sends Donovan a letter claiming to be able to broker an exchange of Powers for Abel. When the CIA learns about the letter, they ask Donovan to go to East German and negotiate the deal. Continue reading

North Carolina’s Conflicted, Disloyal, Unethical Attorney General, Roy Cooper

A candidate masquerading as a lawyer...

A candidate masquerading as a lawyer…

Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s elected Attorney General, has so many conflicts of interest that he can’t credibly do his job in an ethical manner. Fortunately for him doing his job ethically seems to hold no interest for him.

To start with, he is an announced political opponent of the current Republican governor, Pat McCrory. This situation is not unique, but if an Attorney General is going to do his job ethically, for remember he is the state’s lawyer, he has to make an effort to put his political interests aside and not allow them to interfere with his duty to represent his client the state, whose voters have made McCrory its top decision-maker.

Cooper, however, isn’t making any such effort. House Bill 2, a state law passed last week that bars local governments from enacting nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community, is anathema to Cooper’s constituency, so he is refusing to defend it in court against a federal lawsuit. If he were a private attorney whose beliefs rendered it impossible for him to represent his client, Cooper would have to resign. Since he is elected, he need not do that, but he can’t actively interfere with his client’s legal needs either. His proper course under the legal ethics rules governing all lawyers would be to find an outside counsel to do his job in this case, since he is incapable of doing it, and to defend the law.

Instead, Cooper is actively undermining his client’s legitimate objectives.  Cooper said in a news conference that the law is a “national embarrassment” and it “will set North Carolina’s economy back if we don’t repeal it.” That’s the candidate talking, not the state’s lawyer, and thus the state’s lawyer is engaged in a bright-line breach of loyalty by talking like that in public. His duty, and his only ethical option, is to shut up. He may not be able to support his client’s objectives, but he absolutely must not impede them.

Cooper has even gone beyond that ethical violation to a massive conflict of interest breach. Instead of defending McCrory, the Board of Governors and the others being sued in the federal lawsuit, Cooper has announced that he will defend the two LGBT people and the lesbian professor bringing the lawsuit against the state! Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: The Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals

The unethical prosecutor in US v, Flores. Watch out for her!

The unethical prosecutor in State v. Flores. Watch out for her!

It’s always heartening to see a court cite the 1935 Supreme Court case of  Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, (1935), famous in legal ethics circles for its ringing statement that government lawyers must understand that their obligation “in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win . . . , but that justice shall be done.”  The principle has been extended by some judges to civil cases as well, making the point that the government in any legal dispute should be interested only in the best interests of citizens and getting the case right. It is less heartening when the cite is in a dissent, as in this case.

The Ninth Circuit, reviewing a conviction for illegal drug importation, conceded that the prosecutor crossed into unethical territory by misstating the law,misstating the defendant’s testimony, and improperly vouching for a witness. Nonetheless, the court in State v. Flores concluded that this misconduct didn’t rise to the level of “plain error,” meaning that the defendant would have been found guilty anyway:

“In sum, while the government misrepresented Flores’s testimony and misstated the law on multiple occasions, in the context of the trial as a whole, it is unlikely that the jury was misled about the law or the facts.”

That’s right: the government misrepresented facts and law, but the jury was probably not misled. Continue reading