Legal Ethics

Lawyer suspended for 'illegal alien' comment

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An Indiana lawyer has been suspended for 30 days for a comment about the immigration status of his divorce client’s spouse in a letter sent to opposing counsel and the judge in the case.

The lawyer, Joseph B. Barker, wrote the letter in 2009 to protest his client’s lack of access to his child, according to the Indiana Supreme Court’s Sept. 6 opinion (PDF), noted by the Legal Profession Blog.

Barker’s client “told me this week that he has only seen his baby … one day all year,” Barker wrote. “Your client doesn’t understand what laws and court orders mean I guess. Probably because she’s an illegal alien to begin with. I want you to repeat to her in whatever language she understands that we’ll be demanding she be put in JAIL for contempt of court. I’m filing a copy of this letter with the court to document the seriousness of this problem.”

The Indiana Supreme Court said Barker’s letter violated ethics rules regarding conduct showing bias or prejudice, and conduct with no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, burden or delay a third person.

“Respondent argues that it was legitimate advocacy to connect Mother’s alleged violation of immigration laws with her violation of Father’s court-ordered visitation rights,” the court said, “However, regardless of the frustration respondent might have felt in the circumstances, we conclude that accusing mother of being in the country illegally is not legitimate advocacy concerning the legal matter at issue and served no substantial purpose other than to embarrass or burden mother.”

Barker tells the ABA Journal he respects the ruling of the Indiana Supreme Court, but “I simply don’t agree with it.”

“Some things I think were important were not mentioned in the court’s decision,” Barker says in an email. “The judge who held the hearing on my case ruled in my favor. Also, the lady who I was writing about had already been found in contempt once for violation of the parenting time order. My letter was after that. As I told the hearing judge, I have traveled to over 30 foreign countries and enjoy meeting people from other countries. Some countries, however, I had to get a visa. That was their law; I respected their law. People who come into this country illegally are not respecting American laws.”

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