State Bar of California California Bar Journal
Home Page Official Publication of the State Bar of California March2009
MCLE Self-Study
You Need to Know
Trials Digest
Contact CBJ

State Bar discipline unit scores three wins on the same day

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

The State Bar’s disciplinary unit had a busy day Feb. 11:

  • The Supreme Court ordered the disbarment of Beverly Hills attorney Richard Isaac Fine, who called himself the “Don Quixote of the Law.”
  • In a high-profile case, a State Bar Court judge recommended a four-year suspension of a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney.
  • Working with the Orange County district attorney, the bar shut down three offices operated by a southern California lawyer who has been hospitalized since January, leaving more than 2,000 cases unattended.

“It’s rare that we get three such significant orders on the same day,” said Chief Trial Counsel Scott Drexel. “The orders were all, for different reasons, very important public protection and administration of justice achievements for the State Bar and the citizens of California.”

Fine, 69, had appealed a recommendation by the bar court’s review department that he be disbarred; a hearing judge also recommended disbarment. The Supreme Court denied his petition for review.

The bar court found that, beginning in 1999, Fine engaged in a pattern of filing challenges against judges who ruled against him, other judges in the same court system, even court clerks. In proceedings before the bar, he filed 29 motions to disqualify hearing and review judges. His complaints ranged from denial of due process to charges that a commissioner used settlement funds to pursue a vendetta against him.

The review department found that he committed numerous acts of moral turpitude in five matters.

Fine’s problems stemmed from a 1996 class action lawsuit in Los Angeles in which he represented a majority of the plaintiffs. After the commissioner in the case ruled against Fine on a request for attorney fees, he “began a pattern of deliberately misusing the process for challenging a judicial authority,” wrote State Bar Court Review Judge JoAnn Remke. “Even after respondent was repeatedly warned and sanctioned for his abusive behavior in state court, respondent continued his tactics in the federal courts where he repeatedly filed meritless lawsuits against judicial officers.”

In the class action alone, Fine filed 12 challenges against the commissioner as well as three appeals over three years. His actions, Remke wrote, “impeded the efficient administration of justice and improperly burdened the court system.” At one point, his behavior drew sanctions of $25,575 and a five-day jail sentence for contempt. 

Fine’s “repeated acts of moral turpitude demonstrate his lack of fitness to continue practicing law and warrant disbarment,” Remke wrote.

The review panel rejected a series of procedural and constitutional claims by Fine, including a charge that he was denied due process, the statute of limitations expired and his involuntary enrollment on inactive status was unconstitutional.

The review panel’s decision was not nearly as colorful as a 2007 ruling by hearing Judge Richard Honn, who also recommended Fine’s disbarment. Honn compared the Beverly Hills lawyer to a bully and a gladiator for misconduct that was “in a class of its own.”

Fine has long contended that the charges against him are politically motivated. The cases he filed against judges were not retaliatory, he said, but instead were based on his belief that judges who accept money from a county fund to augment their compensation have a conflict of interest in any matter involving government municipalities.

Drexel said it takes 30 days from the time the Supreme Court entered its order for the disbarment to take effect. Although Fine can file a petition for writ of certiorari in federal court, that will not delay the disbarment.

In the case of Santa Clara deputy DA Benjamin Field, Judge Pat McElroy recommended a lengthy suspension because he “abused his prosecutorial power, concealed relevant and material evidence and violated the constitutional rights of defendants.” But for Field’s extensive good works and the testimony of numerous witnesses on his behalf, he would have been disbarred, McElroy wrote.

Benjamin Field

Field, 44, was charged with 25 counts of misconduct in four matters, including disobeying judges’ orders and concealing exculpatory evidence, and although the bar sought a three-year suspension, McElroy went further. “It is clear that respondent failed to be candid and truthful in all dealings with the court and counsel,” she wrote in a 67-page decision. “His overzealousness to convict and punish defendants who had murdered, robbed and raped obstructed his understanding of a prosecutor’s special duty to promote justice and to seek truth.

“In fact,” she continued, “disbarment would be the appropriate degree of discipline to be imposed in this case but for respondent’s compelling mitigation — strong good character evidence and extensive pro bono activities.”

McElroy found the following violations:

  • In a juvenile court matter, Field unlawfully obtained evidence in violation of a court order by subjecting a minor to a dental exam in 1995;
  • In a habeas corpus case, Field failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, allowed the submission of a false search warrant affidavit, sought improper search warrants and made misrepresentations to the court;
  • In a homicide prosecution, he again failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense (secret interview with a co-defendant who pointed the finger at another co-defendant as the shooter in a murder/robbery) in 2003; and
  • In a sexually violent predator proceeding, Field disobeyed court orders in his rebuttal closing argument at trial in 2005, which the appellate court later found  to constitute prosecutorial misconduct.

“We are extremely pleased with the State Bar Court’s decision,” said Drexel. “While we regret the need to bring disciplinary proceedings against a public prosecutor, the court’s decision sends a strong message about the role that prosecutors play in our criminal justice system and about the consequences that can result from the intentional suppression of evidence and other prosecutorial misconduct.”

Field’s attorney, Allen Ruby, who had argued that his client deserved nothing more than a reproval, said he plans to appeal McElroy’s ruling but had no comment on it. He continued to assert his client’s innocence. Santa Clara District Attorney Dolores Carr said Field, now assigned to the high tech crime unit, will remain in his job throughout the appeal. Carr declined to comment on the decision, but said, “I certainly respect the State Bar Court’s authority to make its judgment in this case.”

In a third key development last month, bar prosecutors obtained a Superior Court order that effectively shut down three southern California offices of Sherman Oaks attorney Mitchell Roth. Hospitalized due to severe depression since January, Roth recently expanded his law practice — which had included credit, debt and collections, general civil litigation, personal injury, medical malpractice, wills and trusts, and probate — to foreclosure cases. Roth’s estimated 2,300 foreclosure clients were referred to his law offices by a company doing business as United First, which is not a law firm.

“Given the belief that many of Roth’s cases are open and active foreclosure defense litigation cases wherein the clients are subject to losing their homes and facing eviction, a delay in making orders for assumption of Roth’s law practice will result in substantial injury to clients or others,” the State Bar wrote. Roth’s phone message referred foreclosure clients back to United First.

The order was obtained under the Business and Professions Code, which permits the Superior Court to assume jurisdiction over a law practice where the attorney has become incapable of providing the quality of service necessary to protect clients or if there is an unfinished client matter for which no other lawyer agrees to accept responsibility.

Through his attorney, Paul J. Virgo, Roth consented to the Superior Court’s assumption of jurisdiction over his law practice.

Contact Us Site Map Notices Privacy Policy
© 2024 The State Bar of California