Thursday, July 7, 2022
On February 19, 2020, respondent, pro se, filed a petition for voluntary discipline with the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia, requesting a suspension from the practice of law for twelve months. According to her petition, in 2018 respondent represented a client in successfully vacating a felony conviction. The following year, however, the client contacted her because he had been denied a concealed carry permit in Florida, based on the agency's belief that his firearm rights had been suspended in Georgia. She returned to the court on several occasions to obtain a clarifying order, which the judge agreed to sign once he modified some of the language contained therein. On May 22, 2019, respondent went to the court again to obtain the judge's signature on the order, evidently believing he was presiding that day. When she learned the judge was not, she signed his initials to the order, with full awareness that she did not have permission to do so. She then presented the order to the clerk of the court.
On June 11, 2019, respondent was indicted in Superior Court, Fulton County, Georgia, on one count of forgery in the first degree, a felony. On January 6, 2020, respondent entered a negotiated plea of nolo contendere to the misdemeanor crime of obstruction of officers, pursuant to the First Offender Act, and she was sentenced to one year probation, with a special condition not to practice law for twelve months while on probation. Respondent admitted that her conduct and plea constituted a violation of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (GRPC) rules 4.1(a) and 8.4(a)(3), (4), and (8). She asserted, however, that her conduct, while serious and violative of duties owed to the public pursuant to ABA standards 5.0 and 6.0, did not warrant disbarment, especially given her 34-year legal career and representation of indigent defendants. She contended that her act was abhorrent, uncharacteristic, and inexplicable in her otherwise exemplary career, she promptly accepted responsibility for her conduct and cooperated with the State Bar, she enjoys an outstanding reputation in the legal community and expressed sincere remorse and contrition.
The State Bar disagreed. In fleshing out respondent's underlying actions, it noted in its response to her petition that the clerk realized that the signature was not that of the judge. Further, respondent told the clerk that the judge had signed it that morning. Observing that it did not look like the judge's signature, the clerk's supervisor advised respondent that she was going to call the judge, ultimately sending him a text copy of the document. The judge confirmed that he had not signed the order and wanted to speak with respondent, but respondent had left, later asserting that she had had an emergency. The forgery was reported to the police, who collected the falsified order, text messages, and video footage. In his statement, the judge told the police that he was not comfortable signing the draft order without rewording, despite respondent's later claim that it was a "misunderstanding."
The State Bar sought a greater sanction
On June 3, 2020, respondent requested that her petition for voluntary discipline be converted to voluntary surrender of her license to practice law. In reply, the State Bar noted that both petitions could be considered together as a complete petition for voluntary surrender of her law license. The maximum penalty for a single violation of GRPC rules 4.1(a), 8.4(a)(3), 8.4(a)(4) and 8.4(a)(8) was disbarment. It asked the court to grant her petition as amended which, it noted, was tantamount to disbarment (GRPC rule 1.0[r]).