Legal Ethicist Says John Edwards Should Be Disbarred
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Jack Marshall, President of ProEthics
It isn't winning him any friends among his colleagues, but legal ethics expert Jack Marshall says that it is time for the legal profession to make a statement about its commitment to trustworthiness and honesty. "That statement needs to be the disbarment of John Edwards," argues Jack Marshall, a lawyer and ethicist who is the president and founder of ProEthics, a national ethics training and consulting firm based in Alexandria, VA.
Edwards, the former U.S. Senator for North Carolina and John Kerry's running mate in the 2004 election, recently admitted that he had fathered the child of his mistress, something he denied in press interviews. Edwards is a plaintiffs trial lawyer.
"We now know that John Edwards had an adulterous affair with a campaign worker while he was running for president, while he was holding himself up to voters as a paragon of integrity, and while he was supposedly supporting his wife in her battle against inoperable cancer," says Marshall, who lectures and writes about legal ethics across the country. "We know he persuaded an aide, Andrew Young, to falsely admit that he was the father of Edwards' child. We know that he continued to seek the Democratic nomination while orchestrating the cover-up, well aware that he was risking a massive scandal that would have caused an electoral upheaval if he was successful. He involved his staff and his wife in the deception, which involved repeatedly lying to the press."
"The question the legal profession must ask is, 'Can such a man be trusted?'"
"Trust is the essential ethical value a lawyer must embody," Marshall explains. "All the ethical duties of an attorney [a word that comes from an old French word meaning "one who is trusted," he notes] boil down to trust. Client trust their lawyers to represent them zealously, keep their secrets, not have conflicting loyalties, charge them fairly, protect their assets. The courts trust lawyers to follow the rules, tell the truth, not manufacture evidence or put liars on the stand. And the profession is supposed to pull the license of lawyers who show themselves to be untrustworthy."
Many of Marshall's fellow legal ethicists don't agree. "They argue that Edwards broke no laws. They argue that his personal misconduct doesn't reflect on his professional abilities. They argue that his outrageous behavior didn't occur while he was practicing law. But the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct do not limit proof of untrustworthiness to illegal conduct or to acts committed in the practice of law.
"And the personal-professional dichotomy is a false one. We are talking about one person, not two. If you'll betray those closest to you, you're more likely to betray a client.
"Sometimes legal reasoning crowds out common sense," he says.
Marshall sees a larger professional issue in the reluctance to punish Edwards. "Lawyers hate the idea of reporting misconduct, and don't want to be judged themselves," he says. "They see discipline for Edwards as a slippery slope, with every adulterer being brought before the bar. That's not the point, and it isn't a realistic danger. The question the legal profession has to ask itself is, will it act when a lawyer has shown a complete disregard for the truth, publicly and repeatedly, and has betrayed the trust of many, not just family members, but supporters, friends, and contributors? What kinds of people are fit to be lawyers? If a John Edwards is fit to practice, who isn't?"
"We need an honest debate about what 'trustworthy' and 'fitness to practice' means, and we should involve the public in that debate. Personally, I wouldn't trust Edwards to mail my water bill," Marshall says.
He has written on this issue for his blog, Ethics Alarms, at http://ethicsalarms.com/2010/01/21/disbar-john-edwards/
Proethics, LTD is a national ethics training and consulting firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Among Marshall's clients are over twenty bar associations and numerous law firms across the country.