I just saw this absolutely horrible story on the Mercury news. It’s ridiculously headlined, “Is Your Lawyer a Crook?” And goes on to tell us:

What do you call up to 10 percent of lawyers in California? 

Convicted criminals. 

And that’s no rotten-lawyer joke. 

That’s the eye-popping new estimate by the agency that licenses them.
Of California’s 190,000 active attorneys, as many as 19,000 may have unreported criminal activity, from DUIs to more serious offenses, according to the State Bar of California. 

For the first time in California, all active lawyers will have to submit to having their fingerprints live-scanned or taken the old-fashioned way rby April 30 of next year under the plan the state Supreme Court is expected to approve in the coming weeks. The prints will be fed into the state Department of Justice’s database, and previous convictions will be reported to the Bar — as well as all future arrests. 

“If you have an attorney convicted, let’s say of fraud, you would want to know it,” said Leah T. Wilson, the Bar’s executive director, adding that the proposal evolved as Bar starts to “pay more attention to our public protection mission.”

Gosh, it’s almost as if Leah T. Wilson doesn’t really believe that the California criminal justice system is tasked with… what’s the word? Rehabilitation.

I speak from experience. As a law professor in California I teach hundreds of people every year. Given the high percentage of Californians that we incarcerate, inevitably some of my students have criminal records and have spent some time behind bar. As a consequence, they face an uphill battle with their moral character application, a component of their application to the bar. The application requires complete honesty, about expunged records as well as live ones, and undergoes an extreme degree of scrutiny, which people sometimes have to explain in letters and in hearings at the bar court. I’ve now testified in two bar trials and written four letters of recommendations on behalf of people with criminal records who want to be admitted or readmitted to the bar.

The bias, stigma, and ignorance–not just of the public, but of the bar itself–is breathtaking. At the bar trials in which I testified, I experienced what could only be described as a mediocre community theatre production of a morality tale. Grown people, who have matured and learned from their mistakes, have to recite their contrition. Parole and gubernatorial decisions to release people after decades of introspection and remorse are doubted and ridiculed. Skeletons are dragged out of closets to haunt people for mistakes they did as juveniles.

Honestly, after undergoing the tribulations of punishment in California, sometimes the wringer of repeated parole hearings (and gubernatorial reversals,) and on top of that, the moral character ordeal at the bar, anyone left standing is bound to be so much more thoughtful, reflective, and humble, than various so-called “moral characters” without a criminal record. Anyone with a substance abuse problem would have had time to sort it out and would be so much more mature about it than some so-called “moral character” who is still drinking or snorting, but whose record is squeaky clean. I would so much prefer to have someone from the former category as my lawyer than someone from the latter. But the general public, who is woefully misinformed by articles such as this one about who is a “crook” and who isn’t, would not necessarily make that choice, and that is a horrible injury to do to someone, not to mention a horrible privacy violation.

This also raises the issue of the elitism of the profession. We disproportionately incarcerate folks of fewer means and darker skins. As a consequence, our population of lawyers with criminal records is likely to include a disproportionate percentage of people who came to the profession from humble backgrounds. If we also put additional barriers on their gainful employment in the way of revealing their personal and private histories to potential clients, we are just deepening that elitism.

The problem, of course, is not only with this atrocious decision of the CA bar to injure its own members; it is with the kind of journalistic reporting that makes this into salacious gossip material. Who the hell uses the word “crook” as a euphemism for a criminal record, like something out of a Damon Runyon short story? And who the hell uses lawyer jokes to talk about people who have gone through so much to redeem themselves and find a professional future?

Does rehabilitation actually mean anything to the bar, when it decides to admit folks back to its ranks and then backstabs them by reducing their employment prospects? This is not a move that “protects the public.” This is elitism, bigotry, and ignorance.

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