While the Utah Legislature meets for its 2013 session, and at a time when our attorney general is embroiled in allegations of misconduct, it's time to pass an attorney ethics law. Though others can be charged with criminal perjury and contempt for lying to a judge, Utah attorneys — not "sworn in" in court hearings — can lie with impunity, because there are simply no laws to enforce their honesty.
Attorneys take an oath when admitted to the Utah Bar that they will discharge their "Duties with honesty, fidelity, professionalism, and civility ..." That should equate to being "sworn in," but the Bar is a peer organization and very much like a referee having his own team on the playing field. Attorneys look out for other attorneys. Only a miniscule percentage of bar complaints result in strong disciplinary measures, and judges may choose to ignore an attorney's alleged lies despite the Utah Judicial Conduct Code, which mandates that they take action. The UJCC doesn't quibble about semantics, but states "If a normal person would be offended by such disregard of the law and such an abandonment of responsibility, the Utah Judicial Commission can and has a responsibility to act on this information." Nevertheless the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission doesn't enforce its code, and its staff admits the commission has little disciplinary power.
Twelve other states have passed laws making attorney deceit and collusion a criminal act. It should be. Utah has been inept or incompetent in demanding accountability of its "officers of the court." The self-policing system simply doesn't work. An impartial and equitable court system depends on attorney honesty. Without that, the constitutional rights of every Utahn are at risk.
It is time for Utahns to tell their legislators they demand accountability in the legal profession and the court system. I urge you contact your Senators and Representatives and insist on a law that creates real consequences for dishonest officers of the court.
Here's are some of the basic rules the Lawyer Integrity Bill of 2013 should include:
A lawyer shall not make a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal and shall not offer evidence that the lawyer knows to be false.
A lawyer shall not fail to disclose a material fact to a tribunal when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by the client.
If a lawyer has offered material evidence and comes to know of its falsity, the lawyer shall take reasonable remedial measures.
When evidence that a lawyer knows to be false is provided by a person who is not the client, the lawyer must refuse to offer it regardless of the client's wishes.
An advocate must disclose the existence of perjury and/or the client's deception to the court or to the other party.
A lawyer has authority to refuse to offer testimony or other proof that the lawyer believes is untrustworthy.
A lawyer has a special obligation to protect a tribunal against criminal or fraudulent conduct.
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Any officer of the court shall be bound by law to the commitments thereby sworn. Any such officer of the court found guilty of such dishonesty shall be in violation of the aforementioned rules, shall be deemed in violation of the laws of the state of Utah and shall be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by fine, jail time, or both, and such a conviction shall be basis for a civil suit with treble damages.
Michael Robinson was a columnist for the Daily Utah Chronicle, served as a newscaster at KUER-FM and was an assistant Army Public Information Officer during the Vietnam era.