Lying lawyers who lie

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s one-time campaign manager, has joined the growing list of Trumpelos modeling orange jumpsuits for the 2019 season. Upon Manafort’s second sentencing – he’s getting two terms, totaling out to close to a decade, for a dogs’ breakfast of financial crimes – his attorney, Kevin Downing, made a curious claim:

“Judge Jackson conceded that there was absolutely no evidence of any Russian collusion in this case. So that makes two courts. Two courts have ruled no evidence of any collusion with any Russians.”

Except that she didn’t.

Manafort wasn’t being tried for “collusion,” and Judge Jackson didn’t make any rulings regarding “collusion.” What she DID say was:

“The ‘no collusion’ refrain that runs through the entire defense memorandum is unrelated to the matter at hand.”

and

“The ‘no collusion’ mantra is simply a non sequitur.”

and

“The ‘no collusion’ mantra is also not accurate, because the investigation is still ongoing.”

Oh. That’s pretty much NOTHING LIKE ruling that there was “no Russian collusion.”

But Downing said two courts had made this determination. What did the other court say?

“He [Manafort] is not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government to influence this election.”

Uh, right. He’s before the court for being a swindler. That doesn’t foreclose the possibility that he committed other crimes; just that he’s not being tried for other crimes right now.

It would be an insult to Downing’s intelligence to think he didn’t know the difference between a comment about the limited scope of the proceeding and a ruling, so let’s just call his statement what it is: a lie.

But is it a sanctionable lie? Should Downing’s license to practice law be in jeopardy for this statement?

Many lawyers think so, and some have already filed Bar complaints against Downing. But I think this case aptly illustrates the appropriate limits of the Bar’s ability to sanction lawyerly lies.

Like all Americans, lawyers have a First Amendment right to lie. 1 There are some conditions on this right – defamation and fraud, for example. And lawyers, as a condition of being licensed, take on a few more. But these conditions are all about ensuring the proper functioning of the judicial system – attorneys are ethically bound to duties of candor to clients, opposing parties, witnesses, and tribunals. They cannot say things – truthful or not – that materially interfere with the administration of justice in their own cases. And they can’t mislead or engage in undue suasion in attempting to acquire clients.

At most, there’s the requirement in Model Rule 8.4(c) that lawyers not:

engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation

But that rule turns on the word “conduct,” which we know – from a whole line of “conduct-or-speech” cases I’m not getting into here 2 – is not the same as pure speech from a First Amendment perspective.

Which Downing’s statement was. Pure speech. And any application of Rule 8.4(c) to that speech would be surely unconstitutional.

Downing’s comments certainly were not admirable, praiseworthy, or wise. They were venal and pathetic. But we must think twice before summoning the awful power of government sanction against even the most ill-advised of statements. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in Alvarez:

“Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.”

Indeed.

Notes:

  1. See, for example, US v. Alvarez).
  2. Fine – Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

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