|NMU||VIRGINIA||Freedom of Information||Jun 20, 2001|
State bar drafts sunshine policy for disciplinary hearings
- If adopted an amendment to the Supreme Court rules will make public the process by which attorneys in the state are reprimanded for ethical lapses.
The Virginia State Bar Council approved a measure at its June 14 annual meeting that would, if approved by the state high court, increase public access to attorney disciplinary proceedings.
The amendment permits the public to attend a second-tier hearing which handles violations that would not result in the loss of a license to practice law. Hearings before the disciplinary board, which addresses more serious infractions, have been open to the public.
Under disciplinary rules, a subcommittee first reviews all complaints filed against an attorney. Based on the severity of the alleged wrongdoing, the three-member subcommittee then refers the dispute to either the district committee or the disciplinary board. The proposal covers the district committee hearings.
“If the Virginia State Bar is going to retain the privilege of regulating itself, we have to retain the public’s confidence in the process, and this is a way of doing it,” said Joseph A. Condo, president of the council.
The amendment would also make a procedural change to the subcommittee that determines whether there should be a hearing for the complaint. Under the current system, only one person on the three-member subcommittee must vote to set the matter for hearing, which is not public. The proposed amendment would require two members of the three-member subcommittee to vote for the hearing, which would be public.
“The bar council decided that since the stakes got raised, the votes should be raised,” Condo said of the necessary votes to make the hearing public.
Steve Serdikoff, associate counsel for HALT, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., which pushes for legal reform, said the Virginia disciplinary hearings operate much like other states.
“For the most part, attorney discipline in this country is completely self-regulating,” Serdikoff said. “It really sort of bends toward the will of the attorneys. Attorney discipline therefore is generally closed off to the public.”
He agreed with Virginia’s initiative to further open the process to the public, but said that the process was not open enough. Serdikoff said the process needs to be publicized and made understandable to the public.
“I think it should be public information all the way around,” he said.
Before the rule change becomes effective, the Virginia Supreme Court must approve it. Barbara Williams, counsel to the state bar, was uncertain when the court would consider the change.
Another proposed change to the current system is to limit the number of private reprimands to two in 10 years. Condo said that unless the attorney can show that there were mitigating circumstances, an attorney will be publicly disciplined if he has had more than two private reprimands.
“The rule now has some teeth in it limiting it to two,” Condo said.
© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press