Monday, November 24, 2014
An Illinois Hearing Board has proposed a suspension of three years of an attorney who it found had
made false statements concerning the integrity of the judges, knowing they were false or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity, and engaged in dishonest conduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. The Hearing Board found, while Respondent had accused judges and other attorneys of criminal conduct, there was not clear and convincing evidence that she presented or threatened to present criminal charges, in order to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.
As set forth below, the statements involved a guardianship matter and were made on a blog
Beginning in November 2011, Respondent wrote and administered an Internet blog about the Sykes case. The blog consists of a series of writings, by various persons, including Respondent. Respondent made numerous blog posts over time. Some of those writings concern probate court and the probate system in general. Other writings relate specifically to the Sykes case and persons involved in it. The blog alleges corruption, in probate court in general and the Sykes case in particular. For a time, there were two blogs, one of which described itself as "(a)n attorney blog concerning corruption and greed in the Probate Court of Cook County," because Respondent used hosting sites which offered different features. (Tr. 318-19, 606-610, 820-21, 1026-28, 1647; Adm. Exs. 17-32, 34-49). For simplicity, we designate them as the blog.
Respondent testified she produced the blog as a private person not as an attorney. (Tr. 384). Respondent also testified her knowledge and skill as an attorney was required to post and author the statements on the blog. (Tr. 410). On the blog, Respondent stated she published the blog primarily from a legal standpoint and it took an attorney to make the comments appearing on the blog. (Tr. 411-12). When Respondent began keeping track of time she spent on the blog, she calculated its value using her hourly rate as an attorney. (Tr. 410; Adm. Ex. 17 at 20). As admitted in Respondent's Summary, the blog was open to the public. Respondent estimated, by the time of the hearing, her blog had an audience of about 40,000. (Tr. 318).
The blog includes allegations of wrongdoing by specific individuals involved in the Sykes case. (Tr. 608-610, 821, 1026-28). These allegations are summarized in a "Table of Torts." While those persons are referenced by initials, the Table identifies the persons to whom the initials refer. Respondent prepared the Table of Torts. Because Respondent periodically added material to the Table of Torts, more than one version is in evidence. Respondent acknowledged the exhibits fairly represent snapshots of the Table of Torts. (Tr. 288-91, 303, 1594-95, 1611-14; Adm. Exs. 33, 34).
On the blog, Respondent described the Table of Torts as "TEN PAGES of questionable behavior, corruption, misfeasance, malfeasance, perpetration of misdemeanors and felonies," occurring in the Sykes case, (Adm. Ex. 24 at 16), and as a "Summary of the Case! - 90%+ of the wrongful conduct all in one convenient place." (Adm. Ex. 21 at 10). We begin, therefore, with the Table of Torts, for the purpose of providing an overview of the blog and context for the statements with which Respondent is charged.
The hearing board
Respondent was licensed to practice law in 1986, nearly thirty years ago. She has no prior discipline.
While Respondent acted with reckless disregard for the truth of her accusations, based on our impressions of Respondent, we do not believe she was acting out of a deliberate purpose of harming the judges and attorneys involved. Respondent genuinely, though unreasonably, believed something was wrong with the proceedings in the Sykes case. Respondent knew Mary and Gloria before the guardianship. While Respondent used decidedly misguided means, we believe she was acting out of a sincere desire to help Mary. We were also convinced Respondent truly believes there are abuses in the probate system and the system needs to be changed, to protect persons who are the subject of adult guardianship proceedings. From our perspective, it appears Respondent has genuine concern for senior citizens and perceives the senior population as vulnerable, especially to financial exploitation. This concern, as a general matter, is a legitimate one, even though Respondent had no reasonable basis for believing the judges or attorneys in Mary's case were corrupt.
We do not believe Respondent acted with a self-serving motive. The evidence did not support a theory that Respondent was reaping a significant financial benefit from her activities including operation of the blog.
The proposed suspension will, if adopted, continue until reinstatement is ordered by the court.
As a blogger who frequently finds it necessary to criticize disciplinary processes in D.C. and elsewhere, I confess that I find this proposed sanction excessive given the absence of prior discipline and the conceded sincerity of the attorney's beliefs, even if unfounded.
Corruption in our courts does exist and attorneys have an obligation to speak out when it occurs.
In my view, that conduct should be, if not encouraged, at least allowed.
Once again, I applaud the District of Columbia Court of Appeals for declining to adopt Model Rule 8.2 (Mike Frisch)