Legal Ethics

Suspended Defense Lawyer Gets 60 Days More for Ghostwriting Client's Winning 'Pro Se' Appeal Brief

Suspended from practice for 60 days on April 16, 2009 for unrelated conduct, a Minnesota criminal defense attorney scrambled to find alternative counsel for approximately 30 clients.

But Stephen Vincent Grigsby couldn’t find another lawyer to write an appellate brief the next month for J.R., a client convicted, after a mistrial to which he didn’t consent, in a retrial of a driving-under-the-influence case. So Grigsby wrote the brief himself (apparently without charging for his work), signed J.R.’s name to the “pro se” pleading, timely filed it and forwarded it, with an explanatory letter, to J.R., according to a Minnesota Supreme Court opinion (PDF) filed Wednesday.

Since Grigsby had sent a letter to J.R. weeks earlier explaining that he had been suspended from practice and could no longer represent him, J.R. was an ex-client at this point, the court said. However, it disagreed with Grigsby’s claim that he had done nothing wrong and his argument that attorney ethical rules, if they prohibited his conduct, could also provide him with a justification defense for doing what was necessary to protect his ex-client’s interests in what amounted to an emergency situation.

The court found that Grigsby had violated legal ethics rules by drafting an appellate brief while suspended, by signing J.R.’s name to the brief and by falsely stating to the appellate court that J.R. was pro se. (An assistant county attorney assigned to defend the DUI case conviction on appeal suspected that it had been ghostwritten and brought it to the attention of disciplinary authorities, the opinion notes.)

Grigsby had other options, such as seeking an extension of time from the appeals court or an advisory legal ethics opinion about what he should do, the supreme court said. However, it imposed a 60-day additional suspension, rather than the nine months recommended by a referee, noting that Grigsby had not applied for reinstatement as he waited to see what the outcome of a lengthy legal ethics investigation would be.

J.R., who proceeded in the appeal pro se, won a reversal of his conviction on double jeopardy grounds, the opinion notes.

Hat tip: Legal Profession Blog.

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