Professionals are passionate about their work. Consequently, professionals may become discouraged when they receive an unfavorable result. Professionals must be cautious in the manner in which they respond to bad outcomes, however. Taking to public forums to criticize a decision could result in a violation of rules of professional conduct and lead to personal liability.
A recent ethics decision from the Supreme Court of Louisiana highlights the ethical implications of failing to abide by professional standards of decorum. The case related to a family law attorney who had several matters pending before the same judge. In one of the cases, the attorney’s client filed a pro se motion requesting that the judge recuse herself. The judge granted the motion to recuse while a prior ruling of the judge was pending on appeal. The court of appeals affirmed the prior order, determining that the motion to recuse was not a part of the record and had no effect on the appellate court ruling. The attorney requested a rehearing, asserting that the motion to recuse was in the record, but the request was denied.
The attorney then filed a writ with the court, which stated that the judges had exhibited incompetence and/or corruption, and alleged that they victimized the attorney’s client. The appellate court did not consider the writ, determining that it was not timely made. The attorney was, however, put on notice by the disciplinary counsel that the writ’s allegations of judicial misconduct violated the ethics rules regarding meritorious claims and false statements regarding the integrity of a judge. Despite this warning, the attorney distributed the writ in an email to friends and colleagues in the local bar association.
The disciplinary counsel subsequently filed formal charges against the attorney based on the attorney’s allegation of incompetence and/or corruption among the judiciary and legal profession. After hearing evidence, a committee concluded that the attorney had no factual basis to support the claims of judicial incompetence or corruption, and that the attorney’s decision to email the statement to friends and colleagues violated the rules of professional conduct. Based on this finding, the disciplinary counsel determined that the attorney should be sanctioned by suspension from the practice of law for one year.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana rejected the attorney’s argument that the statements in the writ were protected speech under the First Amendment, ruling that the attorney made the statements with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for their truth. The Court continued that the attorney’s conduct violated the rules of professional conduct, and that a suspension of the attorney’s law license was warranted.
While attorneys and other professionals are not prohibited from questioning decisions they do not agree with, making false and inaccurate statements regarding judicial proceedings is likely to draw the ire of the court and may even lead to sanctions. Professionals who fail to exercise discretion in their public statements risk disciplinary action and personal liability.