March 26, 2007
More on Professional Courtesy
I don't normally post items on attorney discipline, but when I get my Michigan Bar Journal, I confess that nowadays I look briefly through the "In Memoriam" (for example, the Honorable Douglas W. Hillman, United States District Judge for the Western District of Michigan, a really fine man and a fine judge, passed away) and the "Orders of Discipline and Disability." The latter is entirely prurient on my part, probably an unfortunate use of words in this case.
Geoffrey N. Fieger, attorney and radio talk show host, was the subject of the following notice:
On January 9, 2004, the hearing panel entered an order of reprimand based on the respondent's conditional plea of no contest to allegations in a formal complaint that during radio broadcasts on August 23, 1999 and August 25, 1999, he made statements and comments regarding three members of the Michigan Court of Appeals, which were undignified or discourteous toward a tribunal in violation of MRPC 3.5(c) and constituted a failure to treat persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect, in violation of MRPC 6.5(a).
With the approval of the Attorney Grievance Commission, the grievance administrator and the respondent stipulated to the entry of an order of reprimand subject to the respondent's right to appeal the entry of the order based on his claim that the Rules of Professional Conduct allegedly violated are unconstitutional or inapplicable to the facts as alleged.
Following review proceedings conducted under MCR 9.118, the Attorney Discipline Board entered an order and opinion on November 8, 2004, dismissing the formal complaint. Upon consideration of the grievance commissioner's application for leave to appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court entered an order of remand on December 27, 2006, reversing the Board's decision and remanding for further proceedings in conformity with the Court's opinion. See Grievance Administrator v Fieger, 476 Mich 231 (2006). As directed in the order of remand, the Board entered the previously agreed-to order of reprimand on January 18, 2007. Total costs were assessed in the amount of $697.04.
Fieger is best known for his ongoing representation of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, as well as other well-known clients, like the family of Scott Amedure, the man killed after he and another were the subjects of a Jenny Jones television episode. The case received significant publicity because Fieger also ran for governor as the Democratic candidate in 1998, the court split 4-3, Republicans versus Democrats, in the opinion reported above, and the concurrences and dissents laid bare a nasty political dispute among the justices themselves. Not the best of times for lawyers.
Here is a sound bite from the majority opinion that captures a sense of the proceedings:
There is no reasonable construction of Mr. Fieger's remarks that could lead to the conclusion that these were mere comment on the professional performance of these three judges of the Court of Appeals. To call a judge a “jackass,” a “Hitler,” a “Goebbels,” a “Braun” and to suggest that a lawyer is “declar[ing] war” on them and that the judge should “[k]iss [the lawyer's] ass,” or should be anally molested by finger, fist, or plunger, is, to say the least, not to communicate information; rather, it is nothing more than personal abuse. We conclude that such coarseness in the context of an officer of the court participating in a legal proceeding warrants no First Amendment protection when balanced against this state's compelling interest in maintaining public respect for the integrity of the legal process.
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