Legal Ethics

Quicker Lawyer Suspensions Justify Secrecy Proposal, Iowa Legal Ethics Chief Says

The Iowa official who proposes keeping lawyer suspension information secret in consent cases says his aim is to speed up ethics prosecutions and reduce backlogs.

Paul Wieck II, director of the judicial branch’s office of professional regulation, tells the ABA Journal his proposal for privacy in consent suspensions mirrors the process already in effect for attorney disbarments in the state.

When lawyers consent to disbarment in Iowa, the affidavits they file outlining the facts of the case remain private unless the Iowa Supreme Court requires disclosure. Wieck says his proposal would allow lawyers who consent to suspensions to keep the facts of their cases secret as well. The only public document in such cases would be the court’s actual order directing the suspension, which would be available on his office’s website.

Wieck acknowledges that competing interests are at stake. “Certainly there’s an interest in a suspension situation in the public generally knowing what conduct was involved,” he says. “But there’s an interest in moving a lawyer who commits violations out of practice as soon as possible.”

Wieck notes a backlog of about 25 complaints that have not yet been formally filed with the attorney grievance commission. He would like to reduce that number at least by half.

“What we’re trying to do is to expedite the processing of ethics complaints that are filed against Iowa lawyers,” he explains. Toward that end, he has also proposed increasing the number of ethics counsel who prosecute lawyer ethics complaints. Currently, the state supreme court has approved a temporary increase in the number, from four to five.

Wieck cautions that the secret suspensions proposal is “very preliminary at this point.” He expects it “will receive a good vetting and some thoughtful editing” beginning with a public comment process.

The Des Moines Register revealed the proposal, which followed its investigation finding that the lawyer discipline process can stretch for years, and severe sanctions are rarely imposed.

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