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Ethics Questions for Ethics Official

Raising questions "about the appearance of impropriety" on the part of its top ethics official, the Supreme Court of Maryland asked whether Bar Counsel used her official position "to undermine ... a candidate in a Judicial election."

In Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Marylin Pierre, Bar Counsel pressed charges against a grassroots challenger for a seat on the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. Within an hour of receiving campaign literature from incumbent judges seeking to defeat their rival, Bar Counsel opened an official state investigation and worked with the Sitting Judges campaign to compile evidence against Ms. Pierre.

Worried "that Judiciary resources are being used to intervene in this sitting judges election campaign," Justice Shirley Watts expressed concern over an "appearance of impropriety" in favoring one campaign over another:

JUSTICE WATTS: So in addition to a question about a broad conflict in the use of Judiciary resources and potentially intervening or being perceived as intervening in the sitting judge's election, I have a question about professional conflict of interest where you as Bar Counsel are concerned.
You receive the email as a member of the Montgomery County Bar Association in that capacity. It was not a complaint to your office. How would a reasonable member of the public know whether in initiating this investigation you were acting in your capacity as Bar Counsel or as a member of the Montgomery County Bar Association with an interest in helping the campaign as requested?

MS. LAWLESS: Your Honor, it's because I was acting in my official capacity as Bar Counsel. All correspondence sent and received were in my official capacity as Bar Counsel.

JUSTICE WATTS: So the answer is basically we would take your word for it?

This was the very same case that the Court had to stay when Ms. Lawless refused to respond to discovery propounded by Ms. Pierre's defense counsel.

Charged with multiple violations of the Maryland Attorneys' Rules of Professional Conduct, many of the allegations against her involve comments attributed to Ms. Pierre which were critical of Montgomery County's circuit court bench. Fighting these charges, defense counsel argued that statements made in the course of a heated campaign are subject to the highest level of First Amendment protection and should not be censored by a state official intervening in an ongoing election.

Four days after this Supreme Court hearing, Ms. Lawless announced her resignation. See Lee O. Sanderlin, Before Resigning, Top Md. Grievance Lawyer Faced Questioning on Ethics, The Baltimore Sun (February 11, 2023).

Argued: February 2, 2023.

Decided: August 16, 2023

Read the Opinions of Chief Justice Fader, Justice Battaglia and Justice Watts

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Attorney Grievance defense attorney specializes in defending lawyers in disciplinary proceedings before the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission and the D.C. Bar's Board on Professional Responsibility involving professional misconduct, legal ethics, disbarment, suspensions of law licenses, petitions for disciplinary action, reprimands and sanctions for unethical conduct. If you receive a letter from Bar Counsel Lydia Lawless, Disciplinary Counsel Hamilton Fox, or from any attorney disciplinary board in Maryland or the District of Columbia, retain experienced attorneys with expertise in lawyer discipline and breach of ethics cases to avoid sanctions for professional misconduct. We help lawyers avoid disbarment, suspension, reprimands, censure and informal admonitions by drafting responses to client grievances and ethical complaints; representing lawyers in peer reviews, evidentiary hearings, and oral arguments before the BPR and the Court of Appeals; filing petitions to reinstate an attorney's license to practice law; conducting law firm ethical compliance audits; and drafting legal ethics opinions to protect lawyers from ethics charges. In many cases, disciplinary proceedings may be dismissed, dismissed with a warning, or result in a conditional diversion agreement with Bar Counsel to rectify misconduct. Lawyers may need help in managing their law firm attorney escrow IOLTA trust account and complying with attorney trust accounting rules to avoid charges of ethical misconduct. Do not represent yourself in responding to an attorney grievance, law firm client complaint, or other allegation of ethical impropriety. Attorney grievance defense counsel may help you comply with legal ethics rules, avoid sanctions like suspension or disbarment, and avoid future attorney grievances.


By The Lawyer's Lawyers | Kramer & Connolly and Irwin R. Kramer who are responsible for the content of this informational website.   This website is designed for lawyers faced with attorney grievances. As cases do differ, past performance does not guarantee future results.