In troubled times like ours, it is helpful to grasp onto as much positive and optimistic news as possible. For those of us who are appalled by the Big Lie of the disgraced, twice-impeached former President Donald Trump – that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that Trump actually beat Joe Biden for the presidency – it is heartening to learn that some of those promoting the Lie are being held accountable.
In our society, lawyers are essential to upholding the rule of law, a basic principle on which our nation was founded. According to the American Bar Association, lawyers/attorneys in the US must have a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent; complete three years at an ABA-accredited law school; and take an oath, usually swearing to support the laws and the state and federal constitutions. The course of this professional development also includes passing a state bar examination, which includes required tests on professional ethics and responsibility, and passing a character and fitness review; the committee that approves a law license investigates character and background.
Furthermore, lawyers often become judges, and many run for elected office. In all of these positions, lawyers wield a certain amount of power and affect lives. It is therefore imperative that every lawyer that holds a law license in the United States must not only have knowledge but must also conduct him- or herself ethically and responsibly.
Since the 2020 election, a number of lawyers around Trump have publicly made statements about the election that are patently false, and they have filed suits in various courts that attempt to use the court process to overturn Biden’s victory and reinstate Trump as president. To those of us who are appalled at these untrue and dangerous words and actions, the perceived absence of accountability or punishments – or the slow speed of trying to stop this behavior – is very worrisome and aggravating.
The suspension of Rudy Giuliani’s law license in June 2021 by the New York Bar Association was therefore met with relief: at least one powerful person was going to have his wings clipped. (This situation is also mind-boggling and astounding given Giuliani’s earlier hero-status as a prosecutor who went after organized crime and who served as the Mayor of New York City at the time of the September 11th terrorist attacks. It is hard to comprehend this man’s gigantic fall from grace…) The suspension of his law license effectively means that Giuliani is forbidden from practicing law in any state in the US, due to reciprocal agreements; the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, in fact, suspended Giuliani from practicing in courts in the District.
While Giuliani denies that he made false statements, the reason given by New York for the suspension, it is quite possible that he made the statements knowing that they were false. This not only suggests very troubling behavior on behalf of a licensed US attorney who should know better, it also means that millions of people who heard Giuliani’s comments believe and act on them.
Elsewhere, courts are taking actions against other Trump lawyers. Sidney Powell of Texas and L. Lin Wood of Georgia had filed “a lawsuit alleging votes for Trump were destroyed or switched to votes for Joe Biden.” According to Reuters and other outlets, their suit was dropped because the judge found only “speculation and conjecture” in the filing. Because Powell and Wood did file this suit, however, US District Judge Linda Parker in Detroit “formally requested that disciplinary bodies investigate whether the pro-Trump lawyers should have their law licenses revoked. The judge also ordered the lawyers to attend classes on the ethical and legal requirements for filing legal claims,” and she commented that Powell and Wood might deserve to lose their law licenses. Judge Parker further ordered these two to reimburse election officials for the cost of defending the lawsuit.
Judge Parker’s ruling was harsh and to the point, saying that the lawsuit constituted a “profound abuse of the judicial process.” She wrote further that these lawyers’ actions were never about presumed election fraud but rather the very serious and troubling “undermining [of] the People’s faith in our democracy and debasing the judicial process to do so.”
Powell and Wood are just the personalities whose names might be recognized by many Americans. Judge Parker also sanctioned seven other attorneys in the same ruling: Scott Hagerstrom, Gregory Rohl and Stefanie Lynn Junttila, all of Michigan; Emily Newman of Virginia; Julia Z. Haller, who practices in Washington, New York and New Jersey; Brandon Johnson, who practices in Washington, New York and Nevada; and Howard Kleinhendler, who practices in New York and New Jersey.
These attorneys have the right to appeal the ruling, and only time will tell what will happen. But in the meantime, again, millions of Americans have been subjected to the patently false statements that these supposed professionals have made. Furthermore, part of their defense seems to be that Judge Parker was unduly influenced in her opinion – Hagerstrom accuses the Judge of “auditioning for a spot on the Sixth Circuit (U.S. Court of Appeals)” – and that the legal argument against their positions is politically motivated.
In addition to actions affecting lawyers’ licenses and their ability to practice, other judges have been imposing financial sanctions on attorneys who take actions related to the Big Lie. According to the Los Angeles Times in a November 2021 article, a magistrate judge in Colorado, N. Reid Neureiter, ordered two attorneys to pay nearly $190,000 in fines. The reprimanded attorneys, Gary D. Fielder and Ernest John Walker, had filed suit in Denver in December 2020 “alleging a vast conspiracy to steal the 2020 election;” the filing asked for $160 billion in damages – damages ostensibly experienced by the invisible Americans who’d had their votes “stolen.” The lawsuit’s accused included Facebook (now Meta) founder Mark Zuckerberg and the company Dominion Voting Systems that makes voting equipment.
The “meritless and irresponsible” lawsuit was dismissed in April, but Judge Neureiter felt that it was serious enough to comment further in his ruling: the suit “has been used to manipulate gullible members of the public and foment public unrest. To that extent, this lawsuit has been an abuse of the legal system and an interference with the machinery of government,” thus justifying the imposition of the fines.
If any profession in our nation should be held to the highest of ethical and moral standards, it is the legal profession, at all levels. We citizens grant to our elected officials and institutions – such as bar associations and licensing agencies – the obligation to imbue practitioners with the appropriate credentials not only to defend us when we might be accused of wrongdoing but also to uphold our laws, rules and regulations. We are fortunate in our country that the vast majority of our licensed attorneys truly are ethical and follow the law most of the time, for the betterment of all of us. We know that this is not true in many other nations, where the laws may not truly serve justice and/or where the practitioners are corrupt and act in the pursuit of political, financial or other gain.
We also know that some of our attorneys do not always live up to the highest standards. Some of them may “get away with” bad behavior for a long time, and that is tragic and undermines the fabric of our society and trust in our system. What makes this situation even worse can be seen in the cases we have examined here. Some of these powerful practitioners have, for whatever reason, decided to use their power and influence to do the following:
- Speak out in support of the completely unproven narrative that the 2020 election was “rigged” and that Trump actually won the presidential election. We have freedom of speech in this country, so expressing one’s opinion is not automatically against the law. However, it is against ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3 for an attorney to deliberately offer false evidence. It could thus be argued that a lawyer deliberately lying in public speech is still functioning as an attorney: because of their presumed professionalism and expertise, they are highly likely to be trusted by at least some of the public.
- File frivolous, speculative lawsuits and motions that waste the court’s time and taxpayers’ money, abuse the judicial system, and – when publicized – poison citizens’ minds against the truth and the entire process.
- Defend themselves using language that further misleads and influences Americans to believe lies, to lose faith in our legal system, election procedures and government and, in some extreme instances, use violence to seek revenge against those whom they view as the “enemy.”
When lawyers who spread lies and disinformation are elected to public office at any level, they undermine our democratic system even further. (Even if candidates ultimately lose their elections, their lies during the campaign can have a debilitating effect on the process.)
We must applaud the courageous judges in our country who are doing the right thing by sanctioning, reprimanding, disbarring and fining lawyers who are helping to spread the Big Lie. We must also be grateful for all those in the legal profession who conduct themselves with the highest of ethical values and work to preserve and strengthen our democratic republic. Let us hope that the actions taken recently to discipline the unethical, anti-democratic lawyers in our midst serve as a strong warning that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated by the American public or our legal system.