Worst offenders now may face permanent disbarment

Staff Writer

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Calling it a privilege to be an attorney, Evans said, "I support this issue very strongly. We have an ethical compass pointing in the direction we walk in. If someone doesn't understand that, they should resign or leave the profession."

Being an attorney is a very important part of his life, continued Evans, who recalled "getting chills up and down my spine" the first time he appeared in court and said, "Your honor, Maurice Evans representing the people of California."

Wendy Borcherdt, a public member of the board from Los Angeles and longtime proponent of permanent disbarment, was noticeably quiet during the discussion prior to the board's final vote.

However, after approval of the amendment, Borcherdt said she has much respect for the profession and thanked members for taking "the first step" toward restoring that respect in the eyes of the public.

Disbarred attorneys and those who resign with disciplinary charges pending currently must wait five years to apply for reinstatement.

However, the new amendment to Rule of Procedure 662 now gives the State Bar Court the discretion to set a reinstatement waiting period of either five or 10 years, or to disbar an attorney permanently.

Board member Leon Goldin unsuccessfully attempted to introduce an amendment that would prevent the bar court from permanently disbarring an attorney unless he had been previously disbarred, but it was soundly defeated. "I'm against permanent disbarment," said Goldin. "I believe people should have the opportunity to rehabilitate."

President-elect Thomas Stolpman agreed with Goldin and said that the board "is reacting to a perception of public opinion with no empirical data."

The real problem, said Stolpman, is that the bar does not have appropriate standards for reinstatement. The whole subject of discipline is "loaded with emotion" and Goldin's amendment "offers us a chance to allow these criteria to evolve," he said.

Stolpman and Goldin were the only two board members to vote against the original proposed amendment.

Board member John McGuckin said he was torn "because a great part of me says anyone can be redeemed and another part of me says we are all responsible for the consequences of our acts."

However, said McGuckin, he supported the original amendment because it gives discretion to the bar court "and I have a great deal of faith in the judges we recruited for that court."

Many board members relayed the view that the public currently believes disbarment is permanent. "It would be a laughable thing if the State Bar is unwilling to have an ultimate penalty against its members," said Gregory Segall, a public member of the board.

Another public member, Peter Kaye of San Diego, said that by voting against permanent disbarment, the board would send the message that "the boys and girls of the lodge are closing ranks and protecting themselves."

Referring to the recent plebiscite and vote of California attorneys opposed to dismantling the State Bar, Ray Marshall, a San Francisco attorney, said the disbarment amendment was an opportunity to show that attorneys are capable of regulating themselves. "We spent the better part of this year saying we are different from the DMV and deserved the right to govern ourselves and did not want another entity to govern."

In collecting public comment on the proposed amendment, the bar heard from attorneys such as Howard Ekerling, who said that the bar should be able to assure the public that members of the profession reflect the highest ethical standards in their dealing with clients and that nothing less should be tolerated.

Attorney Hayden Trubitt said that disbarment should be forever and if the public knew disbarred lawyers could practice again, it would be scandalized.