One by one, with a sponsor at their sides, 194 lawyers from throughout the country trooped before the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court last Monday for the ceremonial swearing-in that gives them the right to argue cases in the highest court in the land - a badge of honor in the legal profession.
They will display proudly on their office walls the framed certificates attesting to their membership in the Supreme Court Bar, but few will ever use the privileges it conveys.
Nor are they likely to face any disciplinary action by the Supreme Court - even if they are disciplined or disbarred by their home states' highest court - for breaches of the lawyers' code of honesty or ethical behavior.
"Disbarment by a state does not automatically result in disbarment by the Supreme Court," wrote Robert L. Stern and Eugene Gressman in "Supreme Court Practice," the most authoritative guide to the workings of the high court.
A recently completed study by Catholic University law student Greg Tucker showed that the Supreme Court is less strick than many state and lower federal courts in policing lawyers who practice before it. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger has conducted a personal crusade about upgrading the quality of legal representation and encouraging better enforcement of the legal profession's code of ethics.
"Disbarment, as practiced by the Supreme Court of the United States, does not protect the court for the public, does not contribute to the integrity of the judicial process, and fails to advance the standards or ethics of the legal profession," concluded Tucker in one of the few studies ever made of the disciplining of lawyers who practice before the Supreme Court.
Tucker's conclusions were vigorously disputed by Barett McGurn, spokesman for the Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, Tucker found that the Supreme Court takes a passive role in the disciplinary process. It acts only upon receiving formal notification from a lower court that a lawyer has been disciplined, and it fails to use material supplied (quarterly) by the ABA's National Discipline Data Bank. The bank was established four years ago to let all jurisdictions know names of lawyers who have been disciplined.
While listing disciplined lawyers by the ABA data bank is not enough in itself grounds for disbarment, many state courts use it as a notice that a lawyer admitted to practice there may have had trouble elsewhere.
Michael Rodak Jr., the Supreme Court's chief clerk, urges his courterparts on state and federal courts to send official notices of disciplinary actions to him, but Tucker found that few do. Surveying a dozen state supreme courts, he found that only New Jersey and Arizona regularly notify the Supreme Court about disciplining of attorneys.
McGurn dismissed that finding. He said the largest jurisdictions, which he estimated makde up "more than half of the membership of the court's bar," do notify Rodak of disciplinary actions. These include New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Ohio.
Moreover, he said the court is too busy to move aggressively on potential attorney disciplinary cases. "This court is handling 4,000 cases a year, 15 new cases a day," he said. "This is a very busy court."
Disciplining of lawyers is a sensitive matter for most courts, and the Supreme Court is no exception. In his paper, written for a course in "The Dynamics of Impropriety" taught by Washington lawyer Joseph Borkin, Tucker related his problems in obtaining information from court officials.
The first time he visited the court, he wrote, files on four attorneys who had been disbarred, including three for Watergate-related offenses, were given him without question. But his request to see more files on a second visit was refused.
"Deputy clerk (Frank) Larson explained that admissions files were not public records and that he was 'severely reprimanded' for having made the files available when first requested," Tucker wrote.
Tucker's experience illustrates the extreme secrecy with which the Supreme Court conducts administrative business.
While the court runs the swearing-in ceremonies for lawyers admitted to practice before it, for example, the court steadfastly refuses to reveal names of lawyers it finds unfit to be members of the Supreme Court Bar.
The court's reason, McGurn said is to "spare embarrassment to those individuals." But it also deprives members of the public of information they might find useful in choosing a lawyer.
Court officials were visibly annoyed last March when the name of one lawyer whom the justices has refused to admit to the Supreme Court Bar came to light. He was Hal Dokle, who resigned from the Florida Supreme Court two years ago under threat of impeachment.
"That's the first time I've ever heard of the Supreme Court turning anybody down. It's almost automatic," Germany, the Tampa lawyer, said.
While only a relative handful of American lawyers ever appear before the Supreme Court, about one-fourth of them - about 145,000 - have been admitted to practice there.
The costs to join the Supreme Court Bar is $25, and the application for admission is only one page long. Besides permitting an attorney to appear before the high court, membership allows him to use its library and to sit in a special area of the court.