SJC sanctions for unfounded accusations of court misconduct


As previewed, here's a link to a ruling from the Maine SJC Tuesday sua sponte sanctioning an attorney $2500 for remarks in his briefs castigating the trial court – Key Equipment Finance, Inc. v. Hawkins, 2009 ME 117 (per curiam):

The case had to do with liability for a deficiency judgment resulting from a bankruptcy sale.  Pierce Atwood's Eric Wycoff successfully pursued that deficiency on behalf of the plaintiff below, winning summary judgment before Justice Nivision of the Business Court, and prevailing on the appeal.  The merits of the case are fact-specific and based on New York law (albeit UCC law, so of some general precedential value).   

The broader interest in the decision relates to the SJC's decision to sanction the defendant's lawyer for "unprofessional conduct."  The Court stated that zealous advocacy based on the merits of an argument is entirely appropriate, but that here, counsel had "affixed his name to an escalating tirade of unsupported accusations and aspersions calling into question the trial court's independence and competence."  The Court then listed eight examples, in which, among other things, the counsel accused the trial court of "outright bias, extreme naivete [sic] or "intentional disregard," "intentionally ignor[ing] the law," "fabricat[ing] a set of facts to reach a predisposed end," "incompetence," and "judicial anarchy."

As the Court aptly summarized, "Vigorous advocacy cannot be an excuse for childish vitriol." Because the accusations were unfounded and called into question the qualifications and integrity of a judge, they violated M.Bar.R. 3.2(c)(1) [now M. R. Prof. Cond. 8.2(a)].  Because the injury was to the system and court, the sanction was to be paid into the court for counsel's "flagrant transgression."

I cannot help but note that this decision issued the day after the death of Judge Coffin, a shining example of civility.

As the Court said, there is no excuse for such intemperate conduct.  Not only does and should it have palpable consequences, such as the pecuniary sanction imposed here, but this type of behavior diminishes everyone in the bar.  Do we wonder why the general public has such low regard of attorneys?