Maryland's top judge said yesterday that he wants the American Bar Association to examine the state's system of disciplining unscrupulous lawyers and to recommend ways to improve it.
We're going to look at the system, quite frankly," said Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court's always interested in trying to improve the processes and procedures."
Bell's comments came after a series in IThe Sun this week chronicled the problems Maryland lawyers have policing their own. But the judge said that members of the court had decided earlier this month to invite outside scrutiny of the system.
The newspaper cited a number of examples in which lawyers had been held responsible for misconduct by civil and criminal courts, yet remained untouched - at least in public - by a secretive disciplinary process. That process can drag on for years while the lawyer in question keeps practicing.
Another Court of Appeals judge agreed that a review was needed.
Some of the things - the delay, the time it takes on investigations - have been matters that have been bothering me and the court for several years," Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge said yesterday. There are, obviously, always things that can be improved in any kind of governmental administration system, and I think the court's always been open to proposals."
The ABA analysis could come at the same time that Maryland's rules committee, a group of judges, prosecutors and private lawyers, is wrapping up a five-year study of the disciplinary system for lawyers. The committee hopes to propose changes in the rules to the Court of Appeals by this summer.
The rules committee already has voted to recommend procedures that would speed up the process of punishing bad attorneys, and would give the lawyers who prosecute their brethren greater power to immediately stop an attorney from practicing who has been shown to be stealing from clients.
But the committee also has rejected proposals, such as one that would require the automatic suspension from practice of any lawyer convicted of a serious crime." The ABA Model Rules have such a requirement, as does Washington, where many Maryland lawyers also hold licenses.
For example, Bruce C. Bereano, the powerful Annapolis lobbyist, continues to be licensed in Maryland despite his mail fraud conviction nearly three years ago. His license is suspended in the District of Columbia, as well as in the federal courts.
Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., who chairs the rules committee, welcomed an ABA review.
I think it's a great idea, because many of the rules that we're
looking at are taken from the ABA model," Murphy said. I fully support [Bell's] decision to do that. It may actually assist us in our process. I hope that the work will be seen as an improvement on a good system rather than reform of a disastrous one."
Bell said that while he hoped the ABA would examine the efficiency of the process, it would not be able to look at specific cases that the disciplinary system handled in secret.
That's an impediment that has thwarted other efforts to examine the system.
Some lawyers have long felt the disciplinary system punishes small-firm practitioners more harshly than attorneys from large firms, said Michael J. Jacobs, chairman of the Maryland State Bar Association's Standing Committee on Solo & Small Firm Practice.
The difficulty in accurately determining whether there is such a bias is that the case files are confidential and we can't take a look at specific data," Jacobs said.
Jacobs, a member of a two-person Easton civil litigation firm, said he hoped that the reform efforts would include measures to prevent inexperienced, struggling lawyers from harming clients and themselves.
One principal focus of the standing committee is to come to grips with this major gap in mentoring," he said. Lawyers should have somebody to turn to to avoid getting into problems, particularly for the less experienced lawyers."
Pub Date: 2/25/98