Topic: Professions & Institutions

Irresponsible Lawyer, Responsible Judge?

Surprise! Thomas B. Griffith, President Bush’s nominee for the federal appeals court in Washington, was practicing law in Utah without a state law license for the past four years. And this was after he had allowed his license to expire while he practiced law in the District of Columbia for three years, before taking over as general counsel of Brigham Young University. He attributed the DC professional violation (the unauthorized practice of law violates the ethical rules for lawyers in every state and the District of Columbia) to “an oversight” by his law firm’s staff–never mind the fact that each attorney, and not his staff, is responsible for maintaining his or her license to practice. His unauthorized practice in Utah cannot be blamed on his D.C. law firm, and this repeated offense shows that there was a very different reason for Griffith’s problems: him. He neglected his duty to his profession and clients, and failed his duty of diligence. He was arrogant and knowingly violated a professional requirement because he couldn’t be bothered to take the Utah bar like other attorneys.

Astoundingly, the Bush Administration didn’t pull Griffith’s name from consideration the nanosecond his scofflaw tendencies were revealed. Some so-called legal ethics experts actually have opined that Griffith’s licensing gaffes don’t disqualify him for appointment to the bench. Such an opinion should disqualify them from giving legal ethics opinions. This isn’t even a borderline case. Would we appoint as Surgeon General someone who practiced medicine without a license for seven years? How about making someone who for years drove a car without a license as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration? The man is a nominee to one of the nation’s highest courts, and he habitually violated the most basic requirement of his own profession. At least one ethics expert, quoted by the Washington Post, got it right: Mark Foster, a Zuckerman Spaeder attorney who represents lawyers in ethics matters, said “This moves it for me from the realm of negligence to the realm of willfulness. People who thumb their noses at the rules of the bar shouldn’t be judges.”


Lately, bar associations have been aggressively penalizing out-of-state lawyers for performing legal tasks without getting the necessary approval. North Carolina has actually filed criminal contempt charges against a Georgia law firm for doing just once what this aspiring federal judge has been doing continuously for seven years. There is no credible excuse for Griffith’s negligence. He has disqualified himself for judicial office by showing blatant disregard of the very principles that judges exist to serve: following the rules, making sure that all obey and are treated by the law equally, and ensuring the integrity of the legal system.

Let’s compare Griffith by the standards of the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct.

Here’s Canon 1:

“An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved. The provisions of this Code are to be construed and applied to further that objective.”

Can’t say that Griffith qualifies by that standard, can we? How about Canon 2?

“A judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

A lawyer who never bothered to comply with the professional requirements of two jurisdictions doesn’t inspire much confidence on this score, either. Need we go any farther? Griffith does not deserve to be a judge, and that is a verdict that should be non-partisan, clear, and rapid.

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