Sunday Ethics Warm-Up, 1/12/2020: Broken Ethics Alarms, An Ethics Conflict, And “Who Are You Going To Believe, Me Or Your Own Eyes?”

Well, Hel-LO!

“Seinfeld” fans remember Jerry’s Uncle Leo, whose trademark was an over-enthusiastic, “Hel-LO!” The recurring character was played by the late Len Lesser, an obscure Hollywood bit player until the “Seinfeld” gig made him a familiar face. Well, I was watching “Bells Are Ringing, the 1960 film version of the hit Broadway musical known for the standards “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over” (one of my Mom’s favorite songs), on TCM. The film is a reminder of just how luminous Judy Holliday was; she had won the Tony for playing the musical’s starring role on Broadway, and attention should be paid. Tragically, his was her last movie—during filming she was fighting the cancer that eventually killed her —-and I don’t know if there has ever been a female musical comedy star of greater range and presence. Anyway, there’s a number in the film where Judy tells Dean Martin that New York’s grim mass of humanity during rush hours will thaw if strangers only say “hello” to each other. Dean is skeptical, but he tries it on a dour-looking man waiting in the mob, whose face instantly breaks into a brilliant smile at the greeting. “Hel-LO!” the man responds to a surprised Dino, and soon everyone is happily saying hello to each other. You guessed it: the dour-looking man was played by “Uncle Leo” himself, Len Lesser. His catch phrase in “Seinfeld” was a deliberate reference to that bit, one of the very few memorable moments in the elderly actor’s career.

This is really a long introduction to a different point: I get a lot of ethics ideas from watching old movies. For example, I watched 1967’s “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, one of schlockmeister Roger Corman’s few films with an A-list cast and a big budget. The film’s solemn narrator is uncredited, but he is obviously meant to make the casual audience member think it’s Orson Welles. It wasn’t Welles, however: it was master vocal artist Paul Frees, who had a great, and often used, Welles impression. I assume he was uncredited so no one would realize that the narrator wasn’t the weighty Welles, but the voice of Boris Badinov from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

I don’t know how Corman got away with this.

1. Ah, the accurate, trustworthy news media. Reuters reports, “A South African military plane crash-landed on Thursday at the Goma airport in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a U.N. spokesman said….two sources at the airport, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there did not appear to be major damage to the plane.”

Here’s the plane:

2. Apparently the Democratic Party’s strategy regarding the economy is to just flagrantly lie about it. “The U.S. economy is working just fine for people like me. But it is badly broken for the vast majority of Americans,” Mike Bloomberg said this week. That counter-factual statement echoes Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders…pretty much the Democratic field, and it is demonstrably false.

The Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank’s monthly Wage Growth Tracker shows that Americans in the lower wage brackets are making more money, and at a better rate than they have for a very long time. Here’s a graph: Continue reading

Missouri Judges Want Public Defenders To Violate Their Ethics Rules

“Hey, Julie! Here’s another drug possession case for you! Looks like a bad stop and frisk…”

The overworked public defender problem is a massive ethics and civil rights problem that few members of the public know about, and fewer care about.

Many cities have underfunded public defender offices, meaning that the mostly young lawyers working there who are charged with protecting the rights of indigent citizens accused of crimes have excessive case loads, often brutally excessive. In some states, judges have ordered the offices to accept no more cases until additional lawyers are hired, because a lawyer’s representation must be competent and diligent, and these ethical requirements become literally impossible to meet when a lawyer has accepted responsibility for too many cases. In situations where public defenders have argued that indigent clients should be able to waive competence and diligence requirements (since the alternative may be no representation at all), the argument has been rejected. Those ethical requirements cannot be waived. They are mandatory.

In his article on the subject, Professor Stephen Hanlon of St. Louis University Law School, a civil rights specialist, writes, Continue reading

Ethics Heroes: The Orleans Public Defenders

foldersWhen is it your ethical duty to refuse to do your job? Here is one example.

The Orleans Public Defenders office finally decided to force the issue of under-funding for the defense of indigent criminals in the city, announcing last week that, as Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton warned nearly two months ago without any official response, it will begin refusing to handle serious felony cases in which defendants face lengthy or life sentences. Such cases include murder, attempted murder, forcible rape and armed robbery.

The office either needs more funding or reduced caseloads. The city must provide a lawyer for those charged who cannot afford counsel (The 6th Amendment and the Supreme Court insist) , but like almost every city in the nation, the funding for the New Orleans public defenders service is pitiful. With an inadequate staff of lawyers who must handle more cases than it is possible to defend competently, this creates both a Constitutional crisis and an ethical one.

Defense lawyers, like all lawyers, must do a competent job. The professional ethics rules require attorneys to control their workloads: Comment 2 to ABA Rule 1.3, which corresponds to the Louisiana rule, states that a lawyer’s workload “must be controlled so that each matter may be handled competently.” Most public defenders offices know that their clients’ right to representation is being compromised by under-funding, but choose to soldier on, doing the best they can. Several years ago, one office even argued that their clients had “consented” to less than competent representation, because the alternative was no representation at all.  (The court did not agree.)

The American Bar Association addressed this problem in a formal opinion, and wrote, Continue reading

“Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” Ethics: The Public Defenders And The Rap Video

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Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, two  lawyers who worked for the New York City-funded public defenders group called the Bronx Defenders, ran headlong into an ethics mess when they appeared in a video posted on YouTube the December day after the grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges in Eric Garner’s suspicious “choke-hold” death. In the video titled “Hands Up” (of course), Rao and Napoli comfort a grieving mother at the Bronx Defenders offices as they work on a case involving police brutality. The video also includes the image of a white man in a police uniform with pistols pointed in his face and the back of his head by black men, as rappers chant that it’s “time to start killing these coppers.”

Nice.

The video came under heavy criticism from Mayor de Blasio and others. City-paid public defenders should not be lending their positions and the prestige of their office to calls for retribution and violence. Lawyer Rao defended his appearance, arguing that the video supported the mission of the Bronx Defenders to zealously defend minority clients, and that a rap video was an ideal vehicle to make their services known. Gallant try, but no cigar. That message about killing cops is not part of the organization’s mission presumably, nor is it a responsible message for those in the justice system to appear to endorse. Continue reading