Facing State Bar Ethics Charges in Alabama? Become a Judge
Posted Mar 20, 2008 9:25 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that a county judge accused of ethical wrongdoing before he became a judge cannot be disciplined by the state bar until he leaves the bench.
A dissenter claimed the majority opinion leads to "absurd consequences" and gives the judge, Stuart DuBose, "unwarranted immunity."
The bar had accused DuBose, before he became a judge, of writing a will for a dying man without ever meeting him, the Associated Press reports. The will gave $2.5 million in assets to the decedent’s caregiver and named DuBose as executor. DuBose defended the will in an ensuing contest, representing the caretaker in a contingency-fee arrangement. In the course of the representation, he deleted the signature of a notary public who verified a signature without being present, according to the opinion. DuBose later filed a claim against the caregiver for fees, but continued to represent her and serve as co-executor of the estate.
DuBose admitted violating ethics rules in October 2006, and the bar ordered that he be suspended for 45 days, a punishment rejected by the Alabama Supreme Court as insufficient in October 2006. DuBose was elected a circuit judge the next month. After he assumed the bench in January 2007 he sought a stay on the ground that the state bar had no jurisdiction to discipline him under the state’s disciplinary rules. The Alabama Supreme Court agreed in a in a 5-4 decision issued March 14.
Dissenting Justice Champ Lyons said the majority opinion should not have interpreted ethics rules to prevent bar action. "Treating the rule as preventing the state bar from disciplining a judge for conduct that occurred before taking office gives the judge an unwarranted immunity,” he wrote. “To permit the use of a judicial office as such a sanctuary would be a travesty upon justice,” Lyons wrote, quoting another opinion.
Lyons said state disciplinary rules should be rewritten to "protect the public from judges who were unethical lawyers and relieve this court of further embarrassment from the absurd consequences of its own rules."
DuBose could still face discipline, but from a different ethics body. In a different action, the Judicial Inquiry Commission filed 60 separate allegations against DuBose in January, for conduct both on and off the bench, the AP story says. One of the counts concerns the will matter. The Press-Register reports that DuBose is claiming his decisions were affected by "diminished capacity."