requires more than acquiring the knowledge and
mastering the technical skills needed to advise or represent
As for moral turpitude, Kennard acknowledged that
it is difficult to define with precision but offered new guidance:
"Criminal conduct not committed in the practice
of law or against a client reveals moral turpitude if it shows a
deficiency in any character trait necessary for the practice of law
(such as trustworthiness, honesty, fairness, candor and fidelity to
fiduciary duties) or if it involves such a serious breach of a duty
owed to another or to society, or such a flagrant disrespect for the
law or for societal norms, that knowledge of the attorney's conduct
would be likely to undermine public confidence in and respect for the
Lesansky also argued that he did not actually
commit a criminal act, but rather was convicted of an attempted
offense, and therefore should not be subject to summary disbarment.
He had met a woman in an online chat room who
used the screen name "Lisabruce" and described herself as a
14-year-old who looked like she was 17. In fact, Lisabruce was
20-year-old Jennifer Hersey, who was working on a television news
story about sex on the internet.
After several conversations, some with sexual
overtones, Lesansky met Hersey twice, but he claimed it was apparent
to him that she was not a child, and there was no physical contact or
sexual activity at either meeting. Lesansky was arrested and pleaded
no contest to one count of an attempted lewd act upon a child.
Kennard said there was no question Lesansky's
crime constituted moral turpitude because it was "extremely
repugnant to accepted moral standards." Further, she added, his
attempted act "demonstrated a readiness to engage in a serious
sexual offense likely to result in harm to a child."
Paguirigan had admitted to forging a witness'
signature to two declarations. Although she pleaded no contest to the
charge, she argued to the Supreme Court that even when statutory
criteria for summary disbarment are met, the court's precedents
require the State Bar Court to hold an evidentiary hearing on the
circumstances of the crime. In addition, she said her due process
rights had been violated.
Kennard rejected both arguments, saying that when
a felony conviction satisfies the statutory requirements, as
Paguirigan admitted hers did, the attorney is not entitled to a
The due process rights are honored in the
criminal proceeding, the court said.
The justices also rejected Paguirigan's
contention that the statute is a legislative infringement on the
court's authority over attorney discipline and that the Supreme
Court improperly delegated that authority to the State Bar Court. As
it has stated repeatedly in other decisions, the court reiterated that
it has the final say in attorney discipline.
"If you're an attorney and you're convicted
of a felony that meets the statutory criteria under §6102(c),
you're going to be summarily disbarred, period," said Richard
Zanassi, the bar's attorney who argued the cases. "The statute is
there to protect the public, the courts and the profession. If
you're convicted of the crime and §6102(c) applies, that's it."
Ellen Pansky, the attorney for Paguirigan and
Lesansky, agreed. "I think the court made a clear decision that it
will defer to the legislature's decision that an attorney convicted
of a felony involving moral turpitude is going to be summarily
disbarred and the appropriate forum to take advantage of the right to
due process is in the criminal proceeding," she said.
Summary disbarment was initially enacted by the
California legislature in 1872 and remained the law until 1955, when
it was eliminated. It was reinstated in 1986 and amended in 1997 to
remove the requirement that the crime must be committed during the
practice of law or in a manner "such that a client of the attorney
was a victim."
Four other summary disbarment cases before the
court were deferred pending the decisions in Lesansky and Paguirigan.
Pansky, who is handling one of those matters, said she was not certain
how the decisions will affect those cases.