Friday, August 17, 2007

Refusing a Case - The Lawyer's Ethical Duty

This week criminal defense lawyer, Norman A. Pattis, wrote here about a horrible case in Cheshire, Connecticut where a suburban family was brutally murdered. The community was justifiably outraged. Pattis wrote of the public sentiment:
"Fry them," some say of the men accused of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters. Others have offered to fire fatal shots. Let's spare the expense of trial and resort to quick execution, they say. Indeed, when the men appeared at a New Haven courthouse this past week, armed police officers stalked the streets, scanning for snipers. There were angry catcalls from the gallery.
Furthermore, Pattis criticized members of the criminal defense bar for refusing to accept the court appointment to defend these men. He stated:
Some of the shameful chatter among criminal defense lawyers this past week was of lawyers who had turned down the request to represent the defendants. It was as if some members of the defense bar could not run far and fast enough from this case. Have they forgotten that it is a defense lawyer's calling to befriend the friendless and defend a man or woman accused of even the most shocking crime?
I disagreed with Pattis' criticism of the lawyers who refused to accept this case. Defense lawyers are ethically bound to refuse a case they find repugnant, or that they know is beyond their professional competence to handle.

The relevant Texas ethical rules state a lawyer shall not accept or continue employment in a legal matter which the lawyer knows or should know is beyond the lawyer's competence. (Rule 1.01 Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct) Furthermore, these same rules state a lawyer shall not seek to avoid appointment by a tribunal to represent a person except for good cause, such as the client or the cause is so repugnant to the lawyer as to likely to impair the client-lawyer relationship or the lawyer's ability to represent the client. (Rule 6.01)

Even though a lawyer's representation of a client does not constitute an endorsement of the client's political, economic, social, or moral views or activities, the lawyer must be prepared to zealously fight for each and every client whom they represent. Consequently, if the case is too complex or the cause to distasteful, the lawyer is ethically bound to refuse employment.

Don't fault the Connecticut lawyers who declined representation in this tragic case. They were probably following their ethical duty to refuse it. Such cases are extraordinary and require special competence and special intestinal fortitude.

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