Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The free speech rights of lawyers to criticize quasi-judicial tribunals

Earlier this week in Berry v. Schmitt, the Sixth Circuit in an opinion by Judge Rogers, joined by Judge Daughtrey, held that the Kentucky Bar Association violated the First Amendment rights of a Kentucky lawyer by imposing a reprimand on him for his comments that were critical of the failure of Kentucky's legislative ethics commission to act against a well-known state legislator. The Bar did not claim that the lawyer made any false statements. The Court observed that "[e]ven assuming that Berry believed that the Commission had broken the law, he provided the public with the facts upon which his opinion relied. The majority distinguished this case from lawyers speaking in the courtroom, or lawyers speaking outside the courtroom in ways that involve the "unmitigated expression of disrespect for the law." The third judge on the panel concurred in the opinion but wrote separately to express his view that the lawyer's case was mostly an exaggeration borne of his "long-running feud" with the Kentucky Bar Association.

The Lexington paper, the Louisville paper, and the Associated Press had articles about the case.

It is impossible to read such a story without recalling the unfortunate Richmond lawyer, who at the time was only a few years younger than I am now, who received a show cause from the Virginia Supreme Court for words he delivered to Justice John Charles Thomas of the Virginia Supreme Court in at a Christmas party in 1987, along with the two other cases described in this VLW article.

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