Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New Orleans Public Defender Held in Contempt and Sent to Ethics School for Doing His Job

Posted by Alan Childress

From what I've seen for 20 years, Jeff is right about the exhausting world of clinical teaching.  I've long admired several of the Tulane clinical professors (including David Katner in the juvenile clinic which poses the kinds of problems Jeff notes). They do an amazing juggling act when they try to change the world -- a resistant world --  while at the same time making sure they are really teaching students to do it themselves. 

Imagine having all the challenges of which Jeff speaks ... and then adding on top of that a judicial and criminal justice system that is broken beyond all recognition this side of Kafka.  This week Loyola clinician and volunteer PD Steve Singer was held in contempt for doing a thing that I still cannot figure out what was wrong about it, and indeed seems ethically required.  Read the unbelievable story here.  Best I can figure, the judge denied Steve's client "indigent status" and ordered Steve to withdraw.  Steve did so, but tricky Steve did it by asking someone to represent the man pro bono.  I guess Steve was supposed to make sure the man went unrepresented or else had to pay for the attorney, since he was not as indigent as the judge wanted him to be, despite losing his home to Katrina.  Maybe it was somehow disrespectful of the emperor's clothing status to  help the client find new counsel (despite Steve's clear ethical duty to protect the client while withdrawing), given the unspoken intent of the order to make the client go unrepresented or shell out some money to some attorney somewhere. 

Of the many levels that the contempt order makes no sense and should be an outrage worthy of 60 Minutes, just how is it any of the judge's business what fee arrangement the client has made with his new attorney?  Short of it being an unethical contingent fee (which it is not), how is the question even proper to figure out that he is being represented pro bono?

We should be applauding volunteers like Steve Singer and the new attorney willing to take the case pro bono.  They should not go to jail for doing their jobs, even for free in a capitalist society.  This judge should be replaced with someone who believes in law and America.  And whatever harm this does to Steve, imagine that such a tyrant is allowed to sit in judgment over accused citizens in a free country.

Oh and the really funny part of the contempt order is not just the jail time -- it is that Steve has to attend an ethics course.  Good luck finding one that will teach the rules this judge lives by.

Once again, Steve, you are my hero.  If you must attend an ethics class, feel free to attend mine.  I wonder if I ask you to actually teach the class while attending it, will we both be in contempt?

Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink

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It isn't clear to me from the story if the judge is sanctioning the lawyer in question for accusing the judge of an improper motive, for keeping a public defender's investigator on the case after the indigency finding was made, or for finding the pro bono lawyer.

Only the first is a colorable contempt.

The second shouldn't qualify even if true. While a judge can find that someone is required to be given the public defender's services, that doesn't necessarily mean public defender's office has to provide services only to those eligible -- someone might have standing to bring a civil suit alleging misuse of funds, but not the judge in a contempt case.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Nov 29, 2007 1:13:27 PM

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