The D.C. Court of Appeals has opened to the public its previously secret procedures for disciplining lawyers.
For the first time, nonlawyers will serve on the disciplinary board of the D.C. Bar Association, and the board's proceedings will be opened to observers, according to new rules ordered into effect Thursday by the court. Previously, only lawyers could serve on boards that discipline other lawyers.
The court, which has the responsibility of overseeing the conduct of lawyers who practice in Washington, changed the rules on the recommendation of the board of governors of the D.C. Bar and its disciplinary board.
The new rules reflect a national trend to open such proceedings to public scrutiny and to involve the public in the process.
It has long been urged by legal reformers, who argue that keeping such proceedings secret means that lawyers were in a position to protect one another's interests to the detriment of the public. Lawyers, however, insisted that nonlawyers would be unable to understand the intricacies of the profession.
In 1970, Michigan became the first state to add nonlawyers to disciplinary board, and 14 other states have since followed suit, according to F. LaMar Forshee, director of the American bar Association's center for Professional Dicipline.
Maryland State Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery) yesterday asked the Maryland Senate Judiciary Committee to approve a bill that would add two nonlawyers to the state's Attorney Grievance Commission.
"Clients who entrust their future and reputations to attorneys can be assured of recourse against attorney incompetence, he said. "Conversely, attorneys should be allowed to disprove unsubstantiated client complaints."
"That concept has spread quite widely and rapidly, and has been well received," said Forshee.
"The bar leadership is becoming aware that the public has a definite stake in bar decipline and bar performance, and therefore should have some representation."
The D.C. Court's new rules take effect immediately, and the first open hearing before the disciplinary board - renamed the Board on Professional Responsibility - is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
The discarded system of disciplining lawyers began Jan. 1, 1953. It arose from a reorganization of the courts, which expanded the jurisdiction of the D.C. Court of Appeals and gave it the responsibility of policing lawyer misconduct.
The new rules enlarge the board from seven to nine members, and the two members must be nonlawyers. They are to be appointed by the court, as are the lawyer members.
Moreover, one of the three member of a hearing committee, which conducts initial hearings on charges of attorney misconduct, can now be a nonlawyer.
Once a hearing committee finds a lawyer guilty of misconduct, its report is open to the public. Any further hearings - which could be in the form of appeals to the Board of Professional Responsibility or to the appeals court itself - also would be open to the public.
Under court rules, the first investigation of a complaint against a lawyer is done by the bar counsel, an employee of th Board of Professional Responsibility. He in effect acts as a prosecutor - sifting the evidence and if warranted referring the case to the equivalent of a trial before a hearing committee.
The new rules allow only one form of private discipline - at "admonition" by the bar counsel. It is a warning to be used in the case of minor infractions.
Abolished under the new rules is the "private reprimand" the hearing committees could use as punishment for minor infractions.
The Board of Professional Responsibility can issue its own reprimands that now are public but can be appealed to the court. Only the appeals court itself, however, can issue the stiffest disciplinary penalties - censure, suspension or disbarment.
The move to reform procedures to descipine lawyers took off with the publication in 1977 of a report by a special ABA committee that found "the existence of a scandalous situation that requires the immediate attention of the profession."
"With few exceptions, the prevailing attitude of lawyers toward disciplinary enforcement ranges from pathy to outright hostility. Disciplinary action is practically nonexistent in many jurisdictions; practices and procedures are antiquated; many disciplinary agencies have little power to take effective steps against malefactors," said the committee which was headed by former Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, now dead.
Opening the disciplinary process to public scrutiny and involvement is one aspect of the reform that has taken place since.