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Free speech exists for lawyers, too

By Diane Karmpan

Diane Karpman

“We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens’ creme brulee,” said Ann Coulter, before explaining it was merely a “joke” during a speech at a college in Little Rock. The darling of Bill O’Reilly recently lambasted the “Jersey Girls” (9/11 widows), believes that women should not be allowed to vote, supports apartheid and approves of racial profiling for airlines. Ms. Coulter also is a New York lawyer.

The craven comments, designed to promote her book, so inflamed the ListServ for ethics professors that some considered filing a disciplinary complaint based on her solicitation of first-degree murder.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and they returned to grading papers. A bar complaint could have allowed her to achieve “victimhood” for being persecuted by those pesky liberals who don’t have a “sense of humor.”

Being a lawyer does not mean that you relinquish your freedom of speech. Lawyers have been known to make outrageous remarks about judges. Recently, Geoffrey Fieger (Jack Kevorkian’s attorney) was not disciplined for calling Michigan judges Nazis. Some esteemed authorities maintain lawyers should be encouraged to comment about judges since they possess special knowledge, legal training, and the unique ability to assess judicial performance.

In Hogan v. State Bar (1951) 36 Cal. 2d 807, 810, a lawyer (in an open letter) accused the judge of having purchased his degree from a school selling them on the back of matchbooks, in addition to suffering from flatulence. “I am not a piccolo player . . . and as our mutual friend said to me that that is your chief characteristic – wind . . .” He was disciplined because he demonstrated a failure to maintain respect for the courts of justice and judicial officers.

Also, client status should be considered. In referring to a case involving offensive personality, one Supreme Court Justice pointed out: “Those at the top have no need to be offensive. Those at the bottom — the poor, the workers, women, prisoners, criminals, children and sometimes their lawyers (when they have any)” do not have that luxury. Sometimes they need to shout to be heard. (Dissent in Ramirez v. State Bar (1980) 28 Cal. 3d 402, 426.)

Karma exists in legal ethics. Ann Coulter is being investigated for perjury. She filled out a voter registration card in Florida with an address that differed from her I.D., which is a felony. The irony is that Coulter was actively involved in the Clinton/Paula Jones cases (at one point she was asked to assist in writing the briefs). The Jones case was eventually dismissed, but it led to Clinton’s disbarment in Arkansas — for perjury.

What I don’t understand is how does she even think of the outrageous, vituperative, abusive hyperbole that runs out of her mouth? I can guarantee it has nothing to do with peroxide or being blonde. Since we are on that subject, maybe blondes shouldn’t be searched at airports. Obviously, a shoe bomb wouldn’t fit in a pair of high heels.

Diane Karpman, a legal ethics expert, can be reached at 310-887-3900 or at

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