Some time ago, I read a story in the Tampa Bay Times that I found really interesting. A foreclosure lawyer, Mark Stopa, criticized a court for seeming favoritism to banking interests. Stopa wrote in a motion that the court had exhibited a double standard that 'reeked.' He made a point that the dynamic in the court was terribly unfair to his clients, that the court might have an issue with impartiality.
In response to the motion, the Court transmitted Mr. Stopa's motion to the Florida Bar, which in turn, brought a formal complaint for discipline, alleging that he (Stopa) impugned the integrity of the judge.
What does this mean? Well, lawyers in Florida have some interesting ethics requirements. We of course must live by the law in Florida, but the ethics requirements also provide the Florida Bar an enforcement avenue to discipline attorneys when they break their rules. The Bar can bring a complaint in court, and can request a formal rebuke, suspension from practice, and/or disbarment. In this case, the Bar maintained that Mr. Stopa's language broke ethics rules prohibiting one to speak in a manner that impugned a court's integrity.
I found this very interesting. I think he made a point that many people feel when finding themselves in court. They are often before privileged and less-than diverse people, who are usually far removed from the modern lives of litigants. I'm not saying all judges lack empathy, but it has been well documented that there is a lack of gender, race, sexual orientation and other abled candidates in the judiciary. (http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2014-04-27/news/fl-editorial-diversity-courts-dl-20140427_1_florida-bar-judicial-diversity-the-jnc)
It seems Mr. Stopa hit a nerve with the Bar when making a claim that people may feel disenfranchised. Now does this impugn the integrity of a court? Perhaps the way it was written, it may have, but it also might have been constitutionally protected free speech as well. I think many lawyers may think twice when criticizing the system, and to me, this is unfortunate. Without caring criticism, how else will things improve?
In the end, Mr. Stopa decided to settle with the Bar's attorney and found himself in court for a 'formal rebuke' and a future psychological evaluation. The reason he didn't litigate the issue? He said it was too expensive to fight in court. That itself tells you about how lawyers look at the system.
I think it would have been interesting to litigate this question in court. Was Mr. Stopa really impugning the integrity here? What kind of standard really is 'impugning integrity?' Where is the line? Should there be one? What is the line here with constitutional rights to free speech?
I understand Mr. Stopa's decision to move forward and let the incident go, but I also believe that there was a great opportunity here to litigate with the Bar and challenge the status quo, to be introspective, to think about the future. I'll leave the blog today with the link to the story on the Tampa Bay Times site: