Friday, March 31, 2006
THE CONFIDENTIALITY OF LAWYER ETHICS INVESTIGATIONS
Charles E. Lundberg
Chair, Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board
Reprinted from Minnesota Lawyer (January 22, 2001)
With very few exceptions, whenever the Lawyers Board, the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility or one of the District Ethics Committees conducts an ethics investigation of a Minnesota lawyer, all of the information concerning the investigation is absolutely confidential by Supreme Court rule. Anyone who has ever been involved in the Minnesota legal ethics system learns this from the very beginning: The confidentiality of ethics proceedings under Rule 20 is one of the pre-eminent values of the entire attorney discipline system in Minnesota. (For the full text of Rule 20, see accompanying side bar.)
Having served for almost 18 years in various capacities in the legal ethics arena, I am well aware of this emphasis on confidentiality. I was therefore startled when I saw the banner headline and the first few sentences of the following article in the Dec. 22, 2000, issue of the Star Tribune:
EX-COURT CANDIDATE WERSAL FACES LAWYERS OFFICE PROBE
Former Minnesota Supreme Court candidate Greg Wersal is being investigated by the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility for allegedly making misleading statements about justices on the high court.
The probe could result in sanctions as severe as the loss of his license. [Emphasis mine - MNCR]
I was stunned. How in the world did this confidential information about a pending ethics investigation get to the Star Tribune? Could there have been a leak from within the Lawyers Board office? It hardly seemed possible. Few things are considered more sacred at the Lawyers Board than confidentiality.
I then remembered that the attorney in question was himself no stranger to the tactical use of headlines and press releases. (Indeed, Mr. Wersal had generated a tremendous amount of publicity during the campaign when he filed for office using a new middle name of Scandinavian heritage.) It occurred to me that perhaps he had orchestrated the press coverage of the ethics investigation himself.
After checking with the Star Tribune reporter, I learned that Mr. Wersal had in fact been the source of the information - a critical fact that regrettably was not made clear in the article. (I have heard from several people who assumed that the information may have been leaked to the press by someone inside the system, an assumption that might have seemed plausible to some, in light of Mr. Wersal’s recent spate of well-publicized federal lawsuits against the Board as part of his campaign strategy.)
Interesting. As regards Mr. Wersal's appearance before the US Supreme Court:
The U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling was a victory for the Republican Party of Minnesota and Golden Valley lawyer Greg Wersal, who believed Minnesota was thwarting free speech when it barred judicial candidates from expressing views on "disputed legal or political issues."Caveat Emptor, my friends. I appreciate the linkiness for the gubernatorial delegate dust-up, MDE, but don't think that means I'm going to stop making sure all the facts are out on Republican campaign-year tactics.
--Google Cached page, MN Constitution Party website
I'm not suprised that someone wants to get to the bottom of this, but I am suprised that MDE and the Republicans think they can still play politics with this.
If this does go forward and we are investigating judges in the build up to the November election, then damaging questions will be asked to Republicans like Tim Pawlenty regarding what they knew when they knew it and why they sat on it.