Look to ABA for Discipline Standards Reform

The strange tango between the State Bar of California and the California Supreme Court involving the return of 24 discipline cases to the Bar has focused some attention on one of more problematical areas of discipline law, the Standards for Attorney Sanctions for Professional Misconduct.   These written guidelines, currently lodged in Title IV of the Rules of Procedure of the State Bar, were formulated and approved by the State Bar Board of Governors in  the mid-1980s.  State Bar Executive Director Joseph Dunn is quoted as telling the current Board of Trustees last week that that it may be time to review those standards.

The Standards got off to an uneven start.  Originally, their purpose was to the achieve some consistency in the decision making  of  the voluntary “referees” the adjudicated discipline cases at the hearing stage prior to the birth of our current professional State Bar Court in 1989.  They were approved by the Board but apparently never formally approved by the California Supreme Court (although I was told otherwise by a former Chief Trial Counsel, who promised documentation that never materialized.)   It is not even clear that the Supreme Court was even consulted in their drafting, as incredible as that seems in today’s discipline world.   The Supreme Court didn’t waste much in time proclaiming the Standards as “mere guidelines” that did not bind them (Greenbaum v. State Bar (1987) 43 Cal.3d 543, 550.)  A subsequent decision described a particular Standard, Standard 2.2(a) regarding misappropriation as  “not faithful to the teachings of this court’s decisions. ” (Edwards v. State Bar (1990) 52 Cal.3d 28, 38.)  While the Court did embrace the Standards as the beginning of the analysis of the appropriate discipline, not the end, it found the Standards singularly unhelpful in In Re Brown (1995) 12 Cal.4th 205, 220.  Brown is one of the cases cited in the State Bar’s motion filed July 3 seeking to clawback another 24 discipline cases from the Supreme Court.  In the end, the Supreme Court looked to its own case law to determine the appropriate discipline for a tax related criminal conviction.

The Supreme Court’s criticism of the Standards in Brown was heeded.  In late 1990s, a senior attorney in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel worked on re-writing the Standards to provide more specific guidance.  No one was happy with the first draft.
The project was abandoned even before the State Bar was shutdown on 1998 after Governor Wilson’s veto of the State Bar dues bill.

After the shutdown and subsequent resurrection of the discipline system after the Supreme Court ordered special assessment, the priority was resolving the large number of cases that had accumulated during the hiatus.   Settling cases was viewed as a way to keep the cost of the discipline system down, an important consideration because of the inability of the State Bar to raise dues and increasing labor costs;  in the June 2005 California Bar Journal, State Bar of California President John Van De Camp lauded retiring Chief Trial Counsel Mike Nisperos 41% increase in stipulated decisions while boasting ” bar money is being spent carefully.”  President Van De Camp also predicted that the tenure of incoming Chief Trial Counsel would see “continuing improvements in the discipline system.”

Three weeks later, the Supreme Court issued its decision in In Re Silverton (2005) 36 Cal. 4th 81, the other decision cited in the State Bar’s “clawback” motion .   Silverton was misread by the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) as endorsement of the Standards as binding guidelines.

The odyssey of the Van Sickle matter shows that Supreme Court intended no such message (In the Matter of Van  Sickle (Review Dept. 2006) 4 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. ___, 2006 WL 2465633.)  Mr. Van Sickle was found culpable of violating Cal. Rule Prof. Conduct 4-200, charging an unconscionable fee.  The hearing judge recommended six months actual suspension, consistent with the mandatory language of Standard 2.4, which says that a violation of this rule “shall result in at least a six-month actual suspension from the practice of law, irrespective of mitigating circumstances.”  He appealed to the Review Department, which reduced the recommended discipline to 30 days actual suspension, citing several mitigating circumstances.  OCTC petitioned the Supreme Court for review and it remanded the case back to the State Bar for reconsideration in light of Standard 1.7 and Silverton.   On remand, the Review Department explained in some detail why it wasn’t bound by the seemingly mandatory language of Standard 2.7.  It increased the recommended discipline to 3 months actual suspension, still less than the minimum prescribed in the Standard.  OCTC again petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that the State Bar Court was bound by Silverton to follow the Standard.  The Supreme Court denied the petition, tacitly endorsing the Review Department’s analysis which firmly established that the Standards do not dictate the result, no matter what the seemingly mandatory language of the Standards may say.

Van Sickleillustrates two fundamental problems with the Standards.  The first one is mandatory language that belies the true nature of the Standards as guidelines, a legacy of the Standards original purpose of guiding a large number of volunteer adjudicators.  The second is a rigid categorical approach the purports to dictate the result based on the statute or rule violated, not on assessment of the misconduct itself.  The  Supreme Court has said that consistency is important but the quest for consistency is in unavoidable tension with the case by case approach adopted in Supreme Court precedent (“As the final and independent arbiter of attorney discipline, we are permitted to temper the letter of the law with considerations peculiar to the offense and the offender” Howard v. State Bar (1990) 51 Cal.3d 215, 221-22.)

Prosecutors, naturally, like rigid categories.  Not only do they promote consistency, but they are easy to apply.  They remove discretion from those dangerous people we call judges.  Following Silverton,   Chief Trial Counsel  Scott Drexel issued a memo to his prosecutors in June 2006 setting forth the office’s policy on application of the Standards.  The practical consequences of this memorandum are set forth in the 2009 State Auditor’s report on the State Bar:

….in 2005 the California Supreme Court criticized the State Bar for failing to bring all possible charges against an attorney who was ultimately disbarred, and for failing to follow its own sanction standards—internal guidelines that delineate the appropriate actions that the State Bar should take against attorneys who have repeatedly violated professional or legal standards. In response, the State Bar’s former chief trial counsel [Drexel] issued a memo directing staff to apply sanction standards consistently and to be willing to take more disciplinary cases to trial if warranted. The trend in the number of cases that ultimately went to trial in the State Bar Court each year has increased from 65 in 2004 to 127 in 2008, a 95 percent increase and is consistent with the change in policy. [page 19]…Additionally, the former chief trial counsel provided staff further clarification in August 2007 with the State Bar’s Statement of Policies, Objectives, Procedures and Practices Governing the Determination of Level of Discipline. Before this policy shift, according to the former chief trial counsel, the State Bar settled before trial about 90 percent of cases in which the accused attorney articipated. However, he recently estimated that this percentage has decreased to about 75 percent. He also stated that in the past, the State Bar was more willing to offer settlements at lesser discipline levels to resolve cases, and he attributes the recent decline in settlements to the State Bar’s unwillingness to agree to dispositions that are not consistent with the sanction standards. [page 29]

These policies created the growth in investigation backlog and “notice open” backlog (discipline cases where the investigation was complete and charges ready to file) that become the object of the Herculean effort to eradicate the backlogs last year.   Cases were taking months and years to resolve;  I had one investigation matter that took three years to resolve.

Clearly application of these flawed  Standards in a mechanical way, the approach one favored by the Office of Chief Trial Counsel, is impractical.  Revision of the Standards, something everyone has recognized as necessary for most to the last two decades, should be moved to the front burner.  Its a daunting project;  work began on the current proposed new Rules of Professional Conduct , California’s version of the Model Rules, began in 2001 and their ultimate approval in nowhere in sight.  We can’t spend ten years re-drafting the Standards.

Fortunately, there is another set of disciplinary standards that have been in use by state disciplinary authorities and the Federal Court for some time now;  the ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions.   Unlike the California Standards, they have the singular virtue of keying the appropriate sanction to the nature of the misconduct rather than the particular rule of statute violated.  This avoids the Van Sickle problem.  It also echos the California Supreme Court’s decision In re Morse (1995) 11 Cal.4th 184.  In Morse, the Supreme Court, flummoxed by the broad, vague language of the Standards (Morse, at 206),  it was in Brown, examined the case law and turned to two key questions:

…our determination of the appropriate discipline ultimately depends on the answers to two key questions. First, what did Morse do wrong? Second, what is the discipline most  likely to protect the public, the courts, and the profession, or stated conversely, to deter Morse from future wrongdoing?

Morse at 208-09.   The simple principle that it is the nature of misconduct, including the potential for future harm, that should determine the appropriate discipline.   This the approach that the ABA Standards take.

At the time, we in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel, regarded Morse as important guidance, more important the perfunctory statements about the Standards promoting consistency.  Consistency is important but less of an issue when decisions are made by a cadre of professional judges instead of a gaggle of several hundred volunteer referees (especially when assisted by a Supreme Court that consistently makes decisional law in the discipline context).   The hobgoblin of small minds that is the current Standards for Attorney Sanctions for Professional Misconduct has  made the work of discipline more complicated than it needs to be for everyone.   The ABA Standards, while not perfect, provide the starting point for drafting a set of California standards that can truly be helpful in reaching fair and timely sanctions.

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