Friday, February 1, 2008
[Moved up from January 28 with a brief update at the end]
The prosecution of Dickie Scruggs has been fascinating, to say the least, including the view it has provided on the web of connections between the various lawyers in and around the case. The latest filing by Scruggs' defense counsel raises an interesting issue of legal ethics that could present problems down the road. Earlier, Scruggs sought to hire a well-regarded local Mississippi attorney, Kenneth Coghlan, to be part of his defense team in the bribery case. Unfortunately, Coghlan had earlier represented a co-defendant, Steve Patterson, for a brief period before withdrawing, and Patterson has now entered a plea agreement and will testify against Scruggs. Needless to say, this presents a clear conflict of interest problem, despite the waivers by both Scruggs and Patterson because of the possibility that privileged information will be made available to Scruggs' defense team or Coghlan cannot provide effective representation because of his confidentiality obligations to Patterson -- the privilege lasts forever, of course. Not surprisingly, Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers denied Scruggs' motion to have Coghlan appear as his counsel on January 16.
Scruggs' defense team has filed a motion to reconsider, arguing that the waivers by Scruggs and Coghlan dissipate any problems from the potential conflict created by the confidential information received from Patterson. No great surprise there, and it's doubtful Judge Biggers will grant the motion because allowing conflicted counsel to appear would be playing with fire. The interesting issue, especially from a legal ethics point of view, is the following statement in the defense filing (available below):
In the event that the Court does not permit Mr. Coghlan to enter an appearance on behalf of Mr. Scruggs, the undersigned counsel wishes to notify the Court that counsel intends to consult with Mr. Coghlan on issues related to local custom and practice, jurisdiction, jury selection and other strictly legal and procedural (i.e., non-evidentiary issues) that may be pertinent to the defense of the case but which do not implicate any attorney-client privileged communications or information. Mr. Coghlan will have no role in the trial of this matter and will not render any legal advice or consultation to Mr. Scruggs. Furthermore, Mr. Coghlan will not be consulted regarding the specifics of either Mr. Scruggs’s or Mr. Patterson’s alleged involvement in the conduct at issue in the Indictment.
Can it be that a lawyer prohibited from representing a defendant because of a potential conflict of interest can continue to work on the case? That strikes me as a bit odd. While Coghlan was not disqualified by Judge Biggers, because he had not yet entered an appearance to represent Scruggs in the case, the district court's denial of the appearance motion seems to me to be the functional equivalent of disqualification under Wheat v. United States. In that case, the Supreme Court gave trial judges broad discretion to disqualify lawyers because of potential conflicts of interest, especially based on concurrent or prior representation of co-defendants. If a lawyer is disqualified due to a potential (or even actual) conflict, I take that to mean the lawyer may not continue any form of representation under the professional responsibility rules. Therefore, can Coghlan consult on Scruggs' case without representing him in court?
It is not clear whether Coghlan would have an attorney-client relationship with Scruggs, or only be a "consultant" to the lead defense lawyer, John Keker. An argument can be made that Mississippi Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9(a) would allow Coghlan to continue to represent Scruggs, only not in court. The Rule states: "A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter: (a) represent another in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client unless the former client consents after consultation . . . ." Because Patterson agreed to waive any conflict of interest claims against Coghlan, it could be that the continuing representation does not violate the rule. But if Coghlan continues to represent Scruggs, only not appear in court, that seems to go against the spirit of Judge Biggers order, which looked to be based on the district court's authority under Wheat to disqualify an attorney due to the potential conflict. Judge Bigger's decision may have been to remove Coghlan from representing of Scruggs to protect against any possibility of an ineffective assistance claim by Scruggs if there was a conviction.
If Judge Biggers understood his decision to be a disqualification under Wheat, then hiring Coghlan as a "consultant" looks more like a subterfuge to get around the effect of the court's order. If a lawyer has a conflict of interest due to possessing privileged information, then that attorney must be completely removed from the case. The whole idea behind screening lawyers with conflicts is that they can have no contact with the attorneys representing a client, so the lawyer cannot be consulted for general knowledge and background with a promise that no confidential information will be passed. Moreover, if Coghlan is not representing Scruggs, then discussions with him would not necessarily be privileged, although they could qualify for protection under the attorney work product doctrine.
When a judge decides to disqualify an attorney from a case, I always assumed that it meant the lawyer was completely removed from any aspect of the client's legal representation. The Scruggs prosecution once again presents a new and interesting twist. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. Attorney's Office will seek a complete disqualification if Coghlan continues to do some work on the case, but it would not surprise me to see the prosecutors challenge this type of consultation on behalf of Scruggs. (ph)
UPDATE: Judge Biggers denied the motion for reconsideration in a short opinion (available below), stating that Scruggs could hardly complain about a lack of defense help with "five eminent attorneys" already on his team. Interestingly, the Judge passed on making any decision about whether Coghlan could continue to help out with Scruggs' defense, stating in a brief footnote at the end of the opinion, "As to the extra-judicial matters for which the defendant states he intends to employ Mr. Coghlan, the court has no opinion at this time." I suspect that if Coghlan starts showing up in the courthouse for hearings the judge may express an opinion. (ph)