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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sally Yates Should be Disbarred

I/m no fan of President Trump or his immigration policy, bit I don't know if there has ever been as massive and blatant a departure from professional responsibility as Sally Yates' instruction to all DOJ lawyers this week not to defend their client in pending lawsuits because, while conceding that the client had taken an action that was "lawful on its face", she did not believe the "policy choice embodied in [the relevant] executive order is wise or just. "

Apparently Sally Yates not only considers herself superior to the duly elected President of the United States in determining what the right policy choice is, like "Super-President Sally Yates," but she also apparently considers herself superior to all of the thousands of attorneys in the DOJ regarding the scope of professional responsibility to their client.  And you thought Donald J Trump was the biggest narcissist in town.

Yates' letter to the attorneys tries to draw an "on its face /  as applied" distinction.  That's ridiculous. The order had been applied for less than 48  hours, and had already been tweaked to clarify its non-applicability to green card holders.  Any lawyer with more than a week of courtroom experience would know how to defend the order in general while indicating the possibility that the policy might wind up being further modified based on observations about what transpired when it was put into effect. Concerns about one day's worth of application does not justify letting a default judgment be entered on the policy in general. She also  claims that attorneys at the DOJ have a collective responsibility to do justice.  That's equally ridiculously overbroad. Such a responsibility to do justice is congruent with the parameters of the lawyer's professional responsibility, it doesn't mean the lawyer can breach his or her professional responsibility to the client. There is a world of difference between electing not to prosecute an individual for a low-level crime, or choosing not to go along with a questionable entrapment, and letting a default judgement be entered that binds the United States of America globally and indefinitely.  The DOJ is not a free-floating fourth branch of government whose policy preferences supersede the elected branches'.

Here we have a lawyer-client relationship; a fast-moving lawsuit against the client; and the legal position of the client is, by her own admission, defensible, and she orders all lawyers under her supervision to intentionally and knowingly default in their representation of the client.  That has to be unprecedented.  Although I can imagine that, in the hundreds of years of lawyer-client relationships in the Anglo-American legal system, on occasion a lawyer has experienced some personal conflict with carrying out his or her representation of a client, the only ethical action in that context would be to seek to resign the representation, which would be conditioned upon someone else being able to take over the representation without harm to the client's interests.  This is hornbook law as instructed in classes of professional responsibility and, even in matters of public policy, there are precedents for it. For example, after President Carter's failed invasion of Iran in 1980.  Cyrus Vance resigned as his Secretary of Sate (after, not before).  He acted on his conscience but only at a time that did not derogate from the interests of the United States of America.

But here, she goes light-years beyond resolving her own conflict with the position of the client and, incredibly, instructs every lawyer working under her supervision to stop representing the client as well.  This is a lawyer's version of a coup d'etat.  I can't even imagine what the lawyers handling those cases must have thought when they received her instructions.

"Hey, boss says stop working on the 7 nation immigration ban litigation."
"What? Has it been withdrawn or was there a settlement of some kind?"
"Nope"
"Has someone found a Supreme Court case that clearly says the order is unConstitutional?"
"Nope."
"Then, what for?"
"Boss says she doesn't feel like it's a good policy."
"And I'm supposed to go in there and tell the judge to just default the United States of America because that's just how my boss feels?"
"I guess."
"'Cause, you know, I've got cases, I've got precedents, I can make an argument here."
"Toss 'em. Boss says we're to stand down, not defend the client in this case."
"And that's not malpractice?"
"Hope not."
"Will I be protected from disbarment because I was following my boss' instructions?"
"Doubt it."

Honestly, I think, were I in such a position, I would have had no choice but to disregard her instruction, figuring she was deranged or something like that. The lawyer's duty is to the client. If your superior is blatantly telling me to commit malpractice, I don't think there is, either in the short-term or long-term, any alternative but to continue to do my job ethically and hope that somehow the deranged superior winds up removed from her position. If she instructed me to withhold material evidence, it wouldn't protect me were I to do so, I don't see how this is any different.

And what about the several judges around the nation who expect to walk into court and receive a robust presentation of the cases and authorities so they can render the best-informed decision? Obviously they would have to appoint someone from the private sector, a la what happened in the DOMA litigation, to represent the position of the United States of America appropriately, and until that appointment occurred and the person selected was able to prepare a case, the judges would have to place the cases on hold, which hardly does the interests of any person affected by them any good at all.

Imagine if you were a criminal defendant and you had a public defender assigned to you.  The weekend before your trial is about to start, your attorney meets you and says, "I just wanted to let you know that I'm not going to make any argument on your behalf next week, not going to put on any witnesses, cross-examine anybody, or offer any other proof."
"Why?"
"I just think you're a bad guy. and you deserve to go to jail."
"Well if that's the way you feel, I want a new lawyer."
"Nope, I 'm going to be your lawyer, I'm just not going to do anything."

I know lately it feels like we've entered a bizarro universe, but I would hope that the professionals among us would not lower standards in response. If she felt as she says she did, she should have resigned in protest.  But, for instructing other attorneys to breach their professional responsibility to the client, she deserves to be disbarred.