Justices poke fun at legal profession's poor image

January 12, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- If "Saturday Night Live" or the Comedy Channel wants to do a skit about how funny it can be when lawyers try to scrub up their image, the script is already written: The Supreme Court did it yesterday.

With the justices engaging in can-you-top-this humor, the court explored what states can do to erase the "ambulance chaser" reputation that seems to stick to the profession.

One justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, could barely conceal her disdain for a Florida firm involved in the case that drums up business for lawyers. Its name: "Went For It Inc."

The case before the court was a serious one, on the free-speech rights of lawyers. Generally, lawyers have been winning greater First Amendment rights, while states have been losing power to control how lawyers promote themselves.

The lawyer representing Florida, Barry Scott Richard, made a pitch to the court yesterday to reverse that trend, to stop federal courts from "micromanaging" what states may do to curb unsavory legal practice.

He asked the court to revive a state bar rule, nullified by a lower court, that bars any lawyer for 30 days after an accident from writing a letter seeking business from a victim. One reason for the rule, Mr. Richard said, was to offset resentment of lawyer solicitation immediately after an accident or disaster.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked in mock seriousness whether it was "really a terribly legitimate state goal to protect the appearance of the profession" from the "ambulance chaser" image.

The lawyer replied that the Supreme Court itself cared about appearances: The justices wear neutral black robes, maintain a dress code for lawyers, and sit decorously in a "magnificent building."

The court was more light-hearted with Bruce S. Rogow, who represented the Went For It firm and two lawyers who challenged the Florida rule. Mr. Rogow argued that lawyers' solicitation letters are "the least intrusive, most discreet modes of communication."

Chief Justice Rehnquist asked him whether states should be able to clean up the image of lawyers as "extremely greedy, and very anxious to make lots of money." Mr. Rogow said: "They should not try this way" -- the 30-day ban on letter-writing.

That exchange seemed to touch the funny nerve of several justices. This rapid-fire sequence ensued:

Justice John Paul Stevens: "Maybe the state could pass a statute that you can't say unnice things about lawyers."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "Or a law that you can't read Dickens or Shakespeare."

Justice David Souter: "Or not admit greedy people to the practice of the law."

Justice Antonin Scalia: "I'm glad I never passed through the practice of law before I got where I am!"

Justice Stephen G. Breyer: "It might have helped you, actually."

Mr. Rogow did not try to top that.

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