Sunday, September 6, 2015
A closer eye on lawyers
Compelling cases for this astounding assertion were made during hearings held last week in the courtroom of the Court of Appeals, the state’s top court. In testimony before the Commission on Statewide Attorney Discipline, a panel assembled by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, speakers recommended harsher penalties for lawyers who steal from their clients. They also urged that more be done to stem prosecutorial misconduct, especially instances in which district attorneys withhold evidence that could favor or even exonerate the accused.
Allegations of wrongdoing by lawyers are now investigated through grievance committees in the state’s many judicial departments. Justices on the Appellate Divisions of State Supreme Court then mete out the discipline, which can range from a private letter of caution to censure, suspension or disbarment.
Timothy J. O’Sullivan, executive director of The Lawyers Fund for Client Protection, urges that lawyers who keep money belonging to clients be disbarred. Period.
Mr. O’Sullivan, whose group provides compensation to the victims of crooked lawyers, argues that automatic disbarment for any lawyer found guilty of stealing a client’s money will deliver a solid message to victims, the public and to other lawyers about the administration of justice in New York. He also proposed random audits on attorneys across the state to ensure honesty.
As long as an accused lawyer’s own legal rights are protected, Mr. O’Sullivan’s case is hard to argue. It would hold lawyers practicing in the state to appropriately high standards.
A civil rights attorney described for the committee an equally disturbing situation: huge gaps in New York’s monitoring of district attorneys. Stephen K. Downs observed that while there is a watchdog commission for judges, no equivalent mechanism oversees district attorneys. Because they are members of the bar, prosecutors who violate the law or commit other kinds of misconduct would be subject to the same grievance process that investigates other lawyers. But such probes and disciplinary actions involving prosecutors are rare, Mr. Downs said, leaving judgment solely in the hands of voters.
If that is true, a crackdown is needed. Prosecutorial misconduct is as intolerable as police wrongdoing.
This initiative by Chief Judge Lippman – who unfortunately must step down at the end of this year due to mandatory retirement rules covering state judges – deserves full support. That will occur only if the courageous testimony delivered by the speakers in Albany is followed by equally assertive recommendations from the committee.
Demanding more accountability for the action of all attorneys, including prosecutors, will elevate both the legal profession’s standards and the public’s confidence in New York’s justice system. That would be a fine addition to Judge Lippman’s legacy.
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A closer eye on lawyers