Ethics Byte

Lawyer admission cases highlight the personal, political

By Diane Karpman

Diane KarpmanFor the first time in about a decade, there are two significant admissions cases pending at the California Supreme Court regarding who shall be admitted and who shall not. I realize that if you are reading this column you are a member, but we all have a vested interest in who gets to be in our profession. Let’s consider the cases of Sergio C. Garcia and Stephen Glass, in which vastly different issues are raised.

Sergio Garcia was brought into the United States as a toddler. As a youth, he spent time in Mexico. In 1994, his father became a permanent resident and Sergio returned to the United States. He filed a petition (about 17 years ago, it can take decades) to become a lawful resident. Mr. Garcia went to law school and passed the California Bar Exam in 2009. The Committee of Bar Examiners, Attorney General’s office, and most county and local bars in the State support his admission.

However, the Supreme Court (when notified of his status) said “wait a minute.”  They issued five questions and requests for amici participation in the responses. One of the questions was who is basically in charge of admissions in California? Most, if not all, resoundingly believe it is within the penumbra of the Supreme Court’s powers, as it is in all the other states.

Garcia does not qualify for the DREAM Act, or for President Obama’s recent policy modifications, and could be legally admitted during the pending controversy. Remember, he could be like one of the kids that grew up in all of our houses. All of our families (except Native Americans) were immigrants. This issue was already pending in Florida and New York when the California Supreme Court placed it front and center here.

The first promise an applicant makes when taking the Oath is to support the Constitution and State and Federal laws. (Business and Professions Code § 6068) The Committee of Bar Examiners argued in its brief that federal law is not controlling, although it may prevent Garcia from being employed. 

The bar suggested he could be an independent contractor or engage in pro bono activity. The argument seems to be that having a license to practice is a necessary prerequisite to employment as a lawyer. However, such a license does not imply that the holder possess work authorization in the United States. Really, has a client ever inquired if a lawyer is authorized to work?

The other pending case presents a more typical admissions inquiry involving moral character matters. It involves an applicant often labeled a “fabulist,” Stephen Glass. As a journalist, Glass had a whirlwind career as a media darling, making up about 40 “news stories,” before he was fired from The New Republic in 1998. Glass has a fertile imagination, and invented stories about both sides of the political aisle, but it was his cover-ups that were renowned. He invented websites and entire Internet backgrounds for the made-up subjects of his stories. He eventually wrote a book. His escapades were chronicled in a motion picture, “Shattered Glass,” in which he did not participate or profit.

An applicant to the State Bar must establish good moral character, and when there is a history of misconduct, it can be a daunting process. We have all done things we are not proud of, or that were questionable. We were fortunate that we were not caught before we saw the light. Remember, Glass was not charged with criminal conduct.  However, he violated some of the holy grails of journalistic integrity – veracity and honesty – which causes me to now read media reports about his case with more than a mere grain of salt.

The issue becomes one of rehabilitation. The State Bar Court voted 2 to 1 to admit, based upon “overwhelming evidence of Glass’ reform.” In 2000, the Supreme Court denied admission to a man who, in the throes of substance abuse, killed his sister many years earlier. He was denied not because of the manslaughter, but because of far too many recent motor vehicle matters. In re Gossage on Admission (2000) 23 Cal. 4th 1080.

Our society is based upon redemption. Glass is a great opportunity to demonstrate how in our system people can rehabilitate themselves and be fully accepted.

Both of these applicants could make tremendous contributions to the profession. Garcia involves macro issues involving immigration policy, and (in my opinion) is a civil rights matter. Glass involves micro issues of personal redemption, which we hope is available to everyone.

Legal ethics expert Diane Karpman can be contacted at 310 887-3900 or karpethics@aol.com.