Tuesday, January 12, 2010
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has remanded a disciplinary matter to a single justice for entry of an order of disbarment against a former Speaker of the House who had served in that capacity from 1996 to 2005. He had pleaded guilty in federal court to obstruction of justice as a result of his testimony in a voting rights case. The court here considered whether disbarment or indefinite suspension should be imposed and chose disbarment:
...we find no persuasive reason not to impose the presumptive sanction of disbarment or indefinite suspension. The final task, therefore, is to decide which of these two alternatives provides the most appropriate disposition. To make this determination, we turn to the primary factor for consideration in all bar discipline cases, "the effect upon, and perception of, the public and the bar." The hearing panel credited the testimony of the respondent's several character witnesses, who stated in effect that the respondent's criminal conduct was aberrant and out of character, the respondent was remorseful, he had been sanctioned or punished enough by virtue of his conviction and his suspension from the practice of law, and a relatively short-term suspension would not have an adverse impact on public perception of the bar. The dissenting member of the board agreed with this analysis of impact on public perception. The board did not. In the board's view, a departure from what it saw as the "usual sanction of disbarment" in a case where the respondent had "lied about his own actions as a public official in federal court[ ] and which endeavored to obstruct a meritorious action to vindicate the voting rights of people of color" would likely be outrage.
The respondent's misconduct implicates both the integrity of the judicial system and the honesty of a member of the bar. We have no reason to disagree with the finding that the respondent's conduct during the voting rights lawsuit represented an aberrant event in his long career of serving his constituency and the public with loyalty and distinction. But the respondent was convicted of a serious crime involving false testimony to a court under oath in a significant case about fundamental rights. We share the board's view, which is "entitled to substantial deference," that the public perception of the bar would be gravely damaged if this court were to impose a sanction less than the generally applicable one of disbarment. (citations and footnotes omitted)
The case is Matter of Finneran, decided January 11, 2010. (Mike Frisch)