Former Chapman law prof who wrote 'coup memo' faces ethics probe, state bar confirms
John Eastman (left) joins lawyer Rudy Giuliani at a Washington, D.C., rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in support of then-President Donald Trump. They spoke before the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press.
The State Bar of California announced Tuesday that retired Chapman University law professor John Eastman is being investigated for possible ethics violations in connection with his conduct “following and in relation to the November 2020 presidential election.”
The state bar’s chief trial counsel, George Cardona, said in a press release his office has been investigating Eastman since September 2021.
That same month, the news media had reported on an Eastman memo arguing that then-Vice President Mike Pence was “the ultimate arbiter” in the electoral vote count Jan. 6, 2021.
Dubbed the “coup memo” by detractors, Eastman’s document advised Pence on several scenarios in which he could give then-President Donald Trump an election win. Pence could refuse to count electors in several states, he could throw the election to the House of Representatives, or he could hold up the vote count pending investigation of vote fraud claims.
Eastman pressed election fraud claims for Trump in other contexts.
He spoke at a Stop the Steal rally shortly before the Capitol riot, sharing his theory that “secret folders” in voting machines held ballots that could be used to cast Democratic votes.
He also represented Trump in a motion to intervene in a lawsuit seeking to overturn election results in the four battleground states of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Texas, the lawsuit plaintiff, sought to file the suit directly with the U.S. Supreme Court in what is termed an original jurisdiction lawsuit.
The Supreme Court refused to allow Texas to file the suit, citing a lack of standing. The motion to intervene had supported the lawsuit allegations.
Several high-profile lawyers and politicians had asked the state bar to investigate Eastman in an October 2021 letter, the Orange County Register reported in a February story. The letter was written by the States United Democracy Center. Among those signing it was Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Berkeley School of Law and an ABA Journal contributor.
The letter cited Eastman’s speech at the rally, his memo and his motion to intervene in the Texas lawsuit.
“The available evidence supports a strong case that the state bar should investigate whether, in the course of representing Mr. Trump, Mr. Eastman violated his ethical obligations as an attorney by filing frivolous claims, making false statements, and engaging in deceptive conduct,” the letter said.
The letter also said Eastman helped Trump launch “outlandish legal strategies” based on falsehoods to block the outcome of a lawful election. There is a strong basis to investigate whether Eastman violated ethics rules regarding truthfulness, deceptive conduct and assisting others in violating the law, the letter claimed.
Cardona announced the the ethics investigation under a law and a procedural rule that allow confirmation of an investigation “when warranted for protection of the public.” Details of the investigation are confidential, according to the State Bar of California press release.
“A number of individuals and entities have brought to the state bar’s attention press reports, court filings and other public documents detailing Mr. Eastman’s conduct,” Cardona said in the press release. “We want to thank those who took the time to bring to our attention this information, which serves as the starting point for our investigation. We will be proceeding with a single state bar investigation in which we will continue to gather and analyze relevant evidence and go wherever it leads us.”
The ABA Journal was unable to reach Eastman at the number listed for him by the State Bar of California.
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