Legal Ethics

'Social media blitz' in custody case yields possible suspension for Louisiana lawyer

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The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board has recommended a suspension for a lawyer who, along with her client, used social media to urge readers to sign an online petition and contact two judges in cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse.

The board recommended a suspension of a year and a day for the “social media blitz” spearheaded by lawyer Joyce Nanine McCool, who represented a mother alleging child abuse by the father of her children in a child custody and visitation battle. The Legal Profession Blog noted the case and linked the disciplinary board’s Feb. 10 opinion (PDF).

According to the disciplinary board, McCool used Twitter and other social media to publish misleading and inflammatory statements about the judges, to promote the petition, and to try to influence the judges in pending litigation. The website promoting the online petition contained sealed information about the cases, the disciplinary board said.

McCool had said the online petition was the result of a “group brainstorming session” she attended with her client and others. The group met at McCool’s home or office, where they typed the petition and uploaded it to a website.

“Sign our petition telling the judges that there can be no justice … if the law and evidence is ignored,” the online petition said. “Ask yourself, what if these were your daughters? … Horrified? Call the judges and let them know.”

The disciplinary board posted several of McCool’s tweets, including this one: “GIMME GIMME GIMME Evidence! Want some? I got it. Think u can convince a judge to look at it? Sign this petition.”

One of the judges targeted in the social media campaign, from Mississippi, had inherited the case involving child sex-abuse allegations from a prior judge who died. The other targeted judge, from Louisiana, was asked to consider a petition to adopt the children by the mother’s new husband. The Mississippi judge who first heard the sex-abuse claim appointed a guardian ad litem, who found no merit to the sex-abuse allegations. The mother later raised new sex-abuse claims.

The online petition said the Mississippi judge refused to listen to evidence on audio recordings during an August 2011 hearing, when in reality the recordings were not offered into evidence, the disciplinary board said. And the petition accused the Louisiana judge of refusing to hear evidence, when in reality she stayed the case in deference to the Mississippi proceedings.

McCool “by her own admission was unhappy with the decisions rendered in the matters she was litigating,” the disciplinary board said. “After her legal procedural options were exhausted, she decided to launch a social media campaign to influence the presiding judges. Consequently, respondent knowingly, if not intentionally, spearheaded a social media blitz in an attempt to influence the judiciary.”

The disciplinary board said discipline for similar false and misleading statements typically ranged from six months to one year, but noted a “troubling fact” that distinguishes McCool’s conduct—she used the Internet and social media to facilitate it. “Consequently, the offending language remains present and accessible on the Internet today,” the board said. “Furthermore, respondent has expressed no remorse for her conduct claiming instead it is protected free speech.”

McCool told the ABA Journal in an email that she disagrees with the recommendation. “I don’t believe the recommendation does anything to protect the profession or make it more ‘honorable,’ ” McCool said. “To the contrary, it undermines it, and further ensures that ‘justice’ will be whatever judges say it is, regardless of the law, ethics, or all the facts and circumstances that would otherwise contradict them.

“At the center of this disciplinary action is a mother who was deprived of justice and two children who were not protected because the judges refused to abide by the law. It is not an isolated case but what it makes it notable is that I, as this mother’s attorney, was willing to stand up to two judges who ignored the law. … I thought that was what our oath demanded of us and it is why I became an attorney.

“I have no interest in practicing law in a profession that demands absolute deference to an individual, rather than the law.”

Updated on Feb. 19 to include statement from McCool.

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