Saturday, April 17, 2021
Lawyer Who Protested Trial Court’s Interlocutory Ruling, Instead of Filing a Writ or Waiting for Appeal, Agrees to Public Reprimand & Judge’s “Bart Simpson” Punishment
On April 9, 2021, the Board of Professional Conduct of the Ohio Supreme Court recommended the court accept an attorney’s agreement to a public reprimand. See Order (Apr. 9, 2021) http://supremecourt.ohio.gov/pdf_viewer/pdf_viewer.aspx?pdf=901849.pdf. As Debra Cassens Weiss explained for the ABA Journal, the attorney, Anthony Baker, also agreed the trial judge’s “well-publicized and unusual punishment” was proper. Debra Cassens Weiss, Lawyer deserves reprimand for courtroom protest that led to 'Bart Simpson-esque' punishment, ethics board says ABA Journal (Apr. 14, 2021).
Baker represented a criminal defendant in the Cuyahoga County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas, before Judge Nancy Fuerst. See https://www.cleveland.com/court-justice/2020/02/judge-doles-out-bart-simpson-esque-punishment-to-lawyer-held-in-contempt-for-acting-out-at-trial-in-cleveland.html. The state charged defendant with felonious assault and domestic violence, and Baker filed a timely notice of defendant’s intent to rely on a claim of self-defense. Order at 1-2. The parties tried the case to a jury, and at the close of evidence, Baker requested a self-defense jury instruction. After hearing argument from counsel, Judge Fuerst denied the jury instruction request. Id. at 2.
Baker then staged what the parties before the Board called a “protest,” making “repeated efforts to stop the trial from proceeding.” Id.; Weiss, ABA Journal at 2. Judge Fuerst ordered Baker “to sit at the defense table and be quiet,” but while the judge was instructing the jury, “Baker left the defense table and stood behind a television stand.” Order at 2. Baker admitted to the Board: “’I moved away from the table so it was clear I'm not participating.’" Id. Judge Fuerst then dismissed the jury for a lunch break and documented Baker’s conduct for the record. When trial resumed, the jury returned a guilty verdict for the lesser offense of aggravated assault and domestic violence, and defendant appealed. Id.
In a February, 2021 post-trial proceeding, the judge found Baker guilty of contempt and fined him $500. Judge Fuerst also ordered what Cleveland.com called a “Bart Simpson-esque dose of punishment” by requiring Baker to hand-write 25 times each:
- I will not engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice or in any other conduct that adversely reflects on my fitness to practice law.
- I shall not engage in conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal or engage in undignified or discourteous conduct that is degrading to a tribunal.
Baker immediately complied with Judge Fuerst's order and paid the $500 fine. In fact, Cleveland.com published photos of Baker sitting at counsel table and writing out his Bart Simpson-style phrases as well as the first page of his phrases.
Baker also “admitted to the inappropriate nature of his conduct and to deserving the contempt citation.” Order at 3. Baker told the ABA Journal he was “’discourteous,’ and that ‘the judge was right in the discipline she gave.’” Weiss, ABA Journal at 2. “’As I’ve maintained throughout, what I did in the courtroom was not justified,’” Baker told the ABA Journal. But Baker also explained he “didn’t engage in any kind of outbursts, and the judge noted that [his] protest did not create a circus atmosphere.” Id.
Based on media reports of the sanctions, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, as Relator, initiated a proceeding against Baker with the Ohio Supreme Court. Id. Baker and the Bar Association agreed to an additional sanction of a public reprimand, noting Baker immediately complied with the trial court’s sanctions order and admitted to the inappropriate nature of his conduct. An ethics hearing panel accepted the public reprimand after finding additional mitigating factors, including the “highly public nature” of the contempt proceedings against Baker, the lack of prior discipline against him, and his cooperative attitude in the ethics proceedings. Order at 3.
Judge Fuerst’s punishments—and the Ohio bar sanction—seem to have succeeded where Bart Simpson’s teacher’s punishment failed. Nonetheless, the real answer here was a properly-perfected appeal, or an interlocutory device like a writ (in jurisdictions allowing writs). As Baker’s client’s appeal proceeds, it will be interesting to see if the appeals court finds the failure to instruct on self-defense as troubling as Baker did.