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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pa. Supreme Court opens lawyer disciplinary hearings to public

Thursday, November 03, 2005
By Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After more than 32 years of secret proceedings to discipline lawyers who have acted inappropriately, the state Supreme Court has opened those hearings to the public.
The new rules go into effect Nov. 12 and apply to all charges filed after that.
In Pennsylvania, about 5,000 complaints are filed against attorneys each year. Of those, only about 200 result in disciplinary action. Most of the rest are frivolous, said Marvin Rudnitsky, chair of the state Supreme Court Disciplinary Board.
"Just because formal charges have been filed doesn't mean the person's guilty, just that there's a reasonable basis for the charges," he said.
Under the new process, there will be three levels of review before a public hearing would occur, to protect attorneys from unfounded charges, Mr. Rudnitsky said.
A complaint will first be investigated by disciplinary counsel, then by the chief disciplinary counsel, and then reviewed by one of the disciplinary board's hearing committee members.
At that point, a public hearing would be held before a three-person panel, made up of attorneys. The panel then would make a recommendation to the 16-member disciplinary board. The board, in turn, deliberates and makes its recommendation to the state Supreme Court.
"When we have a real danger to the public, a lawyer who is crooked and unethical, the public is exposed to that person during that [review] process, which could take up to two years," Mr. Rudnitsky said.
Before the changes were adopted last month, Pennsylvania was one of only about a half-dozen states, including New York, whose disciplinary process was closed to the public until a final ruling by the state Supreme Court regarding punishment for an offending lawyer.
The issue has been debated for years. In 1992, the American Bar Association released a report that encouraged states to be more open in the disciplinary process. In Pennsylvania, the issue was studied and reviewed for two years before the changes were adopted, Mr. Rudnitsky said.
"I felt that the public would appreciate having more access to the process" as it does for all other licensed professions in Pennsylvania, Mr. Rudnitsky said.
The public can use the board's Web site, to search a database that lists attorneys who have been disciplined.
There are about 57,000 licensed lawyers in Pennsylvania.
"I think the public perception was that it was, perhaps, a good old boys' club," said Mr. Rudnitsky. "I felt that this needed to be changed."
Paul Killion, chief disciplinary counsel for the board, said he received a lot of complaints that the board was "protecting their own." In some cases of minor infractions, like an attorney who neglects a client, Mr. Killion said reprimands still will be made in private.
In an average year, Mr. Killion said, he typically imposes at least 100 informal admonitions and the disciplinary board issues about 30 private reprimands. Last year, he said, there were 112 cases of formal discipline. Those can result in punishment ranging from a short suspension to disbarment.
(Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.)

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