Ethics Alarms Encore: “Possessed Lawyer Ethics”

The best legal ethics story I have ever heard and probably ever will hear arose in Arizona in 2010. I have regaled CLE seminars with it many times since, and it is ever green. After I mentioned the case again today at a Federal Bar convention program, I found myself wondering if I had ever posted about the weird episode on Ethics Alarms. Indeed I had, but it was way back in September of 2010.Here’s how long ago that was: Instagram didn’t yet exist, the statement that Donald Trump would be the next President might get you committed, and the only commenter on the post was “JJ,” whom I have completely forgotten.

Clearly, it’s time for an encore, so here it is, slightly expanded.

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Is it unethical for a lawyer to claim she is possessed by a client’s dead wife?

This  question has been puzzling professional responsibility experts for decades. Okay, not really. In fact, surprisingly, it just doesn’t happen all that often. But in Arizona, a lawyer is now facing suspension for claiming that she was possessed by the spirit of a client’s dead wife, then lying about it under oath. The dead wife is being accused of illegal immigration.

OK, I made up that part, too.

Sorry.

The ABA Journal reports that the lawyer, Charna Johnson, began representing a client during his divorce proceedings. While the divorce was in process,  the client’s wife, who was fighting many demons even before she got in the possession business, committed suicide. Johnson then represented the husband in probate proceedings, but one day became convinced, according to her sworn testimony and that of two witnesses, that the client’s wife had possessed her, like that real demon, Pazuzu. Continue reading

Van Der Sloot’s Defense: Worst Rationalization Ever?

Yup: It's Natalee's fault.

Joran van der Sloot finally pleaded guilty yesterday to the murder of a Peruvian woman, Stefany Flores, whom he had met in a bar. His lawyer, Jose Luis Jimenez, blamed the crime on van der Sloot’s earlier arrest for the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba and the widespread suspicion that he was the missing teenager’s killer.

Defense lawyers, in the zealous representation of their clients, must often come up with creative theories bordering on the risable to try to wring every last drop of helpful spin out of a hopeless case. It bothers non-lawyers and legal ethicists alike when attorneys assert things about a case or their client that they couldn’t possibly believe is true, though it is enough to meet the low bar of the Rules of Professional Conduct for the lawyer to believe that such statements might be true, perhaps in a parallel universe. They are in the “well, how about this?” category. A defense lawyer with a despicable client like van der Sloot, who appears to be a stone cold sociopath, doesn’t have much to work with. Continue reading

Unethical and Unfair Advertising With No Laws or Rules Against It…So That Makes It OK, Right?

Justice Holmes warned about people like this.

From Wisconsin we have a perfect example of how new technology creates opportunities for the unethical to find new ways to exploit it, uninhibited by either basic fairness or formal ethics rules that were written before the technology was available.

The Wisconsin law firm Cannon & Dunphy purchased the names of the two named partners of their biggest competitor in personal injury law, the firm Habush, Habush & Rottier, for a sponsored link, meaning that  every search for “Habush” or “Rottier” produces an ad for Cannon & Dunphy at the top of all the search results.  incensed that their names were being used to promote their competitor, Robert L. Habush and Daniel A. Rottier sued, alleging a breach of privacy and a misuse of their publicity rights. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Charles Kahn Jr. rejected the suit, holding that purchasing a competitor’s name as an advertising key word on the Internet is reasonable commercial use. Continue reading

Is “Have a Nice Day, You Piece of Shit!” An Unethical Goodbye?

An ethics complaint has been filed against an Illinois attorney who, as he left a courtroom, bid farewell to his opposing party with the words,  “Have a nice day, you piece of shit!” The alleged legal ethics violations are Illinois Rule 4.4, which prohibits using means that have” no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, humiliate or burden a third person,” and Rule 8.4, which among its provisions forbids “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

It seems unlikely that the Illinois Bar will find these Rules to have been violated to the extent justifying discipline. Make no mistake: the statement is unethical. Continue reading

Possessed Lawyer Ethics

Is it unethical for a lawyer to claim she is possessed by a client’s dead wife?

This  question has been puzzling professional responsibility experts for decades. Okay, not really. In fact, surprisingly, it just doesn’t happen all that often. But in Arizona, a lawyer is now facing suspension for claiming that she was possessed by the spirit of a client’s dead wife, then lying about it under oath. The dead wife is being accused of illegal immigration.

[OK, I made up that part, too. Sorry; couldn’t resist.]

The ABA Journal reports that the lawyer, Charna Johnson, began representing a client during his divorce proceedings. Continue reading

Blumenthal’s Lies and Professional Discipline

I know I’m harping on Richard Blumenthal, but:

An Illinois attorney has just been suspended from the practice of law for three years for using a doctored resume to obtain his job at a big law firm.

Richard Blumenthal has doctored his resume, in public, by leading voters and media to believe he was a Vietnam veteran, when he was not. He is seeking a job, not with a law firm, but in the U.S. Senate.

The Illinois attorney has been found unfit for the practice of law by dint of his dishonest conduct, which raises doubts about his trustworthiness. Is filling out a resume to acquire a legal job itself the practice of law? No. Can anyone think of a reason why it is less indicative of bad character for a lawyer to fabricate credentials in pursuit of a non-legal job (albeit for a position that makes laws!) than a legal one? I can’t. That would seem to be an absurd distinction. Lying to the hiring partner at a law firm is worse than lying to the citizens of Connecticut? Blumenthal is the State Attorney General: he works for the people of Connecticut; they are his clients!  His lie is certainly worse.

Forget about not voting him into the Senate. Connecticut should work on kicking Richard Blumenthal out of the Attorney General’s office.

Unethical Quote of the Week: The Richard Blumenthal Campaign

“I think in the end, the people of Connecticut care a lot more about what’s happening today in their lives, whether they’re going to keep their homes, their health care and their jobs.”

…. Conn. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal (D) campaign adviser Marla Romash in an interview with The Associated Press, adopting the crisis-tested Bill Clinton tactic of insisting that matters like the honesty of elected officials has no bearing on their fitness for their jobs, and is a distraction from the real interests of the public.

Translation: “In the end, we know the public doesn’t care if its elected representatives are liars who, for example, claim to have fought in Vietnam when they didn’t, as long as they deliver the pork. Heck, you’ve seen it: Senators can be outright crooks, and they’ll still get the votes.”

The Blumenthal Vietnam scandal, as I predicted, is serving as wonderfully useful ethics test for other politicians, the media, Democrats, and Connecticut voters generally. Continue reading

Slap-happy Justice in West Virginia

I confess: I love this story.

The Charlestown Gazette reports that Assistant Kanawha County prosecutor Stewart Altmeyer has been suspended for one month without pay for suggesting a plea deal that permitted the victim of petit larceny to slap the defendant in exchange for dropping the complaint against Dallas Jarrett, who had allegedly taken a few Oxycontin pills from Deborah McGraw’s medicine cabinet while performing some household repairs for her.

Altmeyer says that he relayed McGraw’s offer half-seriously, and was taken aback when the one-slap deal was accepted by Jarrett and his attorney. He shouldn’t have been surprised: Jarrett was facing up to a year in prison. I’d take Deborah’s slap. Heck, I’d take a Mike Tyson slap. Wouldn’t you? Continue reading