Another Slap on the Wrist

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

EVEN BEFORE the latest round of bar disciplinary proceedings against Norfolk defense lawyer and former state delegate William P. Robinson Jr., the response of state courts to his repeated disregard for his duties to clients was puzzling. But the latest wrist slaps are even harder to understand.

Last month, on two successive days, two three-judge panels found that Mr. Robinson had engaged in professional misconduct. The first panel found that he had missed filing deadlines in two cases before the Virginia Supreme Court in 2001 and 2002 and thereby caused his clients' appeals to be dismissed. The following day, a second panel found -- as the Virginia State Bar summarized it -- that his failure in 2001 "to appear in court on his clients' behalf in three different cases constituted conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal and that in each case Mr. Robinson misrepresented why he failed to appear in court." His sanction? A public reprimand in the first proceeding and a 90-day suspension of his license in the second.

Mr. Robinson, according to research we reported on last year, is among the lawyers in Virginia who most frequently blow deadlines and so cause dismissal of their clients' appeals. A review of court documents identified 12 instances in which the Virginia Court of Appeals dismissed appeals by his clients without considering their merits at that time because of Mr. Robinson's errors. The bar has documented a long history of his failing clients before that. It privately reprimanded him in 1996 and 2000 for defaulting cases -- actions that later became public in other disciplinary proceedings. It publicly reprimanded him in 2000 and 2002 for similar misconduct. In three other disciplinary cases between 1995 and 2000, authorities dismissed charges on the condition that he improve management of his practice. Yet, despite this record, in a case last year involving still more blown cases, a three-judge panel gave him a 30-day suspension. One of the judges commented in open court that he'd played golf with Mr. Robinson. Another said that "if I was in trouble, I wouldn't hesitate to hire Mr. Robinson if I could just get him to court on time."

Now, despite the pleas of bar authorities -- who again, in one of the recent cases, sought unsuccessfully to have his license revoked -- Mr. Robinson has emerged nearly unscathed despite conduct that one panel found to violate an ethical rule against behavior "involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation." Bar Counsel Barbara Williams, in an e-mail, said she was "disappointed" with the results of both cases in light of Mr. Robinson's prior record "and the severity of the discipline imposed upon other respondents who engaged in similar misconduct."

Why would courts treat so blithely this particular lawyer's serial failure to serve his clients? Is it because of his golf game? His status as a former legislator? His reputation as a first-rate trial lawyer? We do not know. We do know that, if he errs again, it will be his clients who pay the price, not the strangely merciful bench.

In an e-mail in response to our inquiries, Mr. Robinson accused us of misrepresenting a previous interview with him, but he acknowledged that "criticism of my professional conduct in some instances is appropriate when such criticism is based on facts." He noted that we were not present at his recent hearings. And he suggested that our questioning of the Virginia courts for their leniency toward him places us in the company of "intolerant zealots who criticize the Federal Bench . . . for their decisions in controversial matters before the Courts."

In dispensing their recent wrist slap, the judges implied that even their patience might have limits. "This conduct will not be tolerated in the future," said Circuit Judge Alfred D. Swersky of Alexandria, according to the Virginian-Pilot. "This is absolutely the end of the line." Maybe this time they mean it.

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