Thomas B. Griffith, President Bush's nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, appeared to provide inaccurate information to Utah bar officials about his legal work and lapses in obtaining law licenses over the past year, according to documents released yesterday at his nomination hearing.
Griffith's nomination has been stalled for months over concerns that he failed to maintain a valid license for three years while he practiced law in the District and Utah, and that he did not obtain a Utah license after taking a job as general counsel for Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Even as Griffith defended his record yesterday, the new documents added to that controversy.
They show Griffith reported to Utah state bar officials last year that his law license had never been suspended. It had been suspended from 1998 to 2001. He also told the state bar that he relied on his D.C. license to practice law in Utah. But at yesterday's hearing, Griffith testified that he had practiced law in Utah by relying on associations with licensed attorneys there.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a longtime friend of Griffith's who pledged to "do everything in my power" to help him win confirmation, scheduled yesterday's hearing for the middle of a lame-duck session and was the sole committee member present to question Griffith. Democrats said they were surprised Hatch proceeded despite the slim chances of the Senate approving Griffith in the remaining days before Congress adjourns and the objections to the nominee.
"We're going to do our very best to get you confirmed before the end of the session," Hatch told Griffith, before acknowledging: "It'll be miraculous if we do."
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) asked that Griffith's application and letters to the Utah bar be released at yesterday's hearing.
The Washington Post reported this summer that Griffith's D.C. license had been suspended because he did not pay bar dues from 1998 to 2001, a lapse that prevented Griffith from obtaining a reciprocal law license in Utah after he took the Brigham Young job. Griffith applied late last year to take the bar exam to obtain a Utah license but never sat for the January 2004 test.
Last month, the American Bar Association gave Griffith the lowest passing grade for a judicial nominee, a "qualified" rating. A large minority of the review committee voted "not qualified."
Yesterday, in his first public comments on the matter, Griffith said he "deeply regrets" his failure to make sure that his law firm paid his dues so he could keep a valid District law license. "I bear full responsibility for what happened," he said. "I should not have relied on others."
Griffith added that because his license was suspended for administrative reasons, he never considered it a true suspension or disciplinary matter, and did not report it to Utah officials. "The thought never crossed my mind that it was related," he said.
Griffith also defended his decision not to obtain a Utah law license since becoming general counsel at Brigham Young, Hatch's alma mater, in the summer of 2000.
"It was always my understanding that in-house counsel need not be licensed," he said, as long as he worked with lawyers who did have valid Utah state licenses when he dispensed advice on state matters. He said he has been "meticulous" in limiting his work by collaborating with the four lawyers he supervises in his office.
In the newly released licensing application to the Utah state bar, however, Griffith answered "yes" to a question on whether he practiced law in Utah. He reported that he did so as general counsel for Brigham Young, relying on his D.C. law license.
In April 2003, the documents show, Griffith wrote a letter seeking advice from the Utah bar on how he could obtain a state license. Griffith said he had erred in assuming that a new state rule might help him get a reciprocal license. The bar's general counsel, Katherine A. Fox, wrote back the next month urging him to apply to take the bar exam and warning him to work with licensed colleagues in the meantime.
"It is unfortunate that you anticipated relying on the rule without having an understanding of the restrictions it imposed," she wrote.