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A Lawyer's Tale

Friday, August 6, 2004; Page A18

LAST WEEK, THE Virginia State Bar made public a new set of disciplinary charges against Norfolk defense lawyer William P. Robinson Jr. , a former state delegate whose repeated botching of criminal appeals we chronicled last month. According to a study we conducted, he is one of the leaders among Virginia lawyers in causing his clients' criminal appeals to be dismissed because of his failure to meet key filing deadlines. Over a 15-month period, his errors caused the Virginia Court of Appeals to dismiss the appeals of six of his clients without reaching their merits.

The bar's new action does not relate to these so-called procedural defaults. Rather, it deals with another of Mr. Robinson's habits of negligence: not showing up for trials or hearings. Specifically, it complains of three incidents in which courts have held Mr. Robinson in contempt for being AWOL. In two of those cases, courts imposed suspended jail sentences; in the third, the judge dismissed the matter after Mr. Robinson did 50 hours of community service. Mr. Robinson's repeated failure to handle appeals with minimal diligence is no secret to the bar. Yet he remains eligible to take on new clients -- a paradigm of how blithely the commonwealth treats incompetent defense work.

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Only two months ago, a three-judge panel in a separate bar action found that Mr. Robinson had mishandled six cases. The bar alleged that he defaulted four appeals; that he had left one habeas corpus petition pending on a court's docket for three years until the court dismissed it and then falsely assured his client that "your case is still pending"; and that he had falsely advised another client that his appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court had been rejected. In that case, an attorney for the bar, Richard E. Slaney, asked the panel to revoke Mr. Robinson's law license. The judges agreed instead on a 30-day suspension of his license -- politely delayed until December -- along with a requirement that he hire a management consultant. The court, in effect, gave him a long Christmas holiday so that, as one of the judges put it, he can "have a Happy New Year and get things back on track."

The judges seemed apologetic about doing even that. Judge H. Thomas Padrick Jr. said, with no apparent sense of irony, that "if I was in trouble, I wouldn't hesitate to hire Mr. Robinson if I could just get him to court on time." And Judge Walter W. Stout III noted that he had played golf with Mr. Robinson and that "his reputation among judges and trial lawyers is that he is one of the best trial lawyers on his feet going." Their purpose, they emphasized, was merely to improve his case management.

Such leniency may be comprehensible for a first offense. But Mr. Robinson was privately reprimanded by the bar in 1996 and 2000 for defaulted cases. He was publicly reprimanded in 2000 and 2002 for similar infractions. Three other disciplinary cases between 1995 and 2000 were dismissed on the condition that he improve management of his practice.

And then there are the eight defaults about which we wrote -- two involving Derrick Watts, two involving Shauntea Giddens, and one each involving Redena Carmack, Maurice Brown, Darryl Thomas and Victor Jones Sr. All told, Mr. Robinson has effectively abandoned clients -- either by blowing appeals, by standing by while cases were dismissed in lower courts, or by not showing up for trials or hearings -- in at least 20 known instances. What exactly does it take to get disbarred in Virginia?

Mr. Robinson is an extreme example, but as our study has shown, he is far from the state's only defense lawyer who frequently tosses a client's rights away. The inevitable result is injustice for such lawyers' hapless clients.

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