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November 10, 2006

Interesting Reciprocal Discipline Interpretation Case

"We hold that neither the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers nor the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland is a "disciplining court" under D.C. Bar Rule XI, §  11(a) (2006); and that before reciprocal discipline may be imposed by this court for professional misconduct in another jurisdiction, an attorney admitted to practice in this jurisdiction must have been disciplined by a disciplining court outside the District, or by another court in the District."  So concludes an interesting decision of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in In re Greenspan, ___ A.2d __, 2006 WL 3227786 (D.C. App. Nov. 9, 2006).  The bar rule at issue only authorized reciprocal discipline  where discipline had been ordered by a "disciplining court" and the systems in Massachusetts and Maryland did not require discipline by courts.  It's an interesting read, with a dissent.

The bar rule at issue provided that reciprocal discipline could be imposed only if discipline had been ordered in the foreign jurisdiction by an entity identified in D.C. Bar R. XI, §  11, as a "disciplining court." Section 11(a) defined "disciplining court" as  "[ (1) ] any court of the United States as defined in [28 USC 451] [2] the highest court of any state, territory, or possession of the United States, and [ (3) ] any other agency or tribunal with authority to disbar or suspend an attorney from the practice of law in any state, territory, or possession of the United States."

The problem was that in the cases under review, DC lawyers had been disciplined by a board of overseers, in Maine, and by the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.  The highest courts in those states had delegated power to discipline to these other entities.

Even so, the majority held that they were not "disciplining courts."  Recognizing that they were not within the first prong, and focusing on the second two alternative definitions, the majority held that the bar entities were clearly not within the second prong, as they were not "highest courts," and held that they were not within the third prong, as those had historically been interpreted as limited to "agencies or tribunals with powers identical to those in the second prong," and so were not covered since they, themselves, did not have authority to disbar or suspend an attorney from practice.  Despite concluding the language was unambiguous, the majority also reviewed the drafting history of the rule, but found nothing inconsistent with its construction.

The dissent  made some interesting comments:  "These cases come to us in an odd posture and are being decided by the majority through the application of principles of statutory interpretation that are primarily designed to defer to another branch of government, with little regard to purpose or overall context, notwithstanding that what is presented for interpretation is a rule fashioned by this court in the highly interrelated context of reciprocal discipline. In my opinion, the reflexive application of "plain meaning" interpretation to our rule unnecessarily yields a result at odds with the system of reciprocal discipline."

November 10, 2006 in Current Affairs | Permalink

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