Judges to examine discipline proposals

Changes meant to speed errant lawyers' cases

September 09, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

More than seven years after the job of retooling Maryland's system of disciplining errant lawyers began, the state's highest court will air proposals today that a committee of judges, private lawyers and prosecutors drafted in hopes of speeding and strengthening what has been criticized as a cumbersome process.

While the proposed changes fall short of the overhaul that the American Bar Association recommended last year, they would give more power to the bar counsel office, which investigates complaints against lawyers and can seek punishment.

The current Maryland system lets lawyers practice while their cases drag for years through as many as four hearings in a multilayered system that can lead to the Court of Appeals disbarring or otherwise punishing them. About 5 percent of complaints get as far as that court.

The proposals would let bar association counsel negotiate a probation agreement with troubled lawyers, diverting them from the rest of the discipline system, let that office quickly stop a lawyer found stealing from clients and speed punishment of lawyers convicted of crimes or disbarred elsewhere.

Detractors say the proposed changes risk inconsistent discipline and diminish the role of the state bar association in policing the legal profession.

The ABA criticized the existing rules, adopted in 1975, for giving "excess due process" to lawyers under investigation for wrongdoing and recommended a system akin to that in the District of Columbia, where cases are handled much more quickly.

"There isn't anyone who doesn't think some of these take too long. Sometimes it is five, six years after the problem that the case comes to us," said Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner, one-time chairman and former member of the rules committee. The committee wrote the proposals.

The changes the committee wants largely keep the current system intact. Committee members say they don't know how much their proposals would speed the discipline process, but at least a few months would be lopped off the average case.

"We felt the system needed some fixing, but it didn't need to be scrapped altogether," said H. Thomas Howell, the Towson lawyer who wrote many of the proposed revisions.

Longtime observers of the state's highest court say the seven judges are unlikely to adopt new discipline rules today in their hearing on the first large-scale changes proposed to the system.

By far the most controversial proposal is one to diminish the Review Board, the second stage after a complaint is examined by a local inquiry panel, and the one criticized as unnecessarily stretching the discipline process. The proposal would clip its power, halve its size and end appointment of its lawyer-members by the state bar association in favor of the Attorney Grievance Commission appointing the board.

The state bar association is criticizing those changes, combined with others, as tipping the process against an attorney under fire, making the Review Board "an appellate outlet for Bar Counsel" while restricting appeals by the attorney whose actions are being questioned.

Westminster attorney Charles M. Preston, whose term as president of the Maryland State Bar Association ended this summer, said the Review Board's current role ensured consistency across the state from the local inquiry panels.

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