A Columbia, Md., lawyer was found in contempt of court Monday after she refused a judge's order to disclose the whereabouts of a 4-year-old boy who had been the subject of a bitter custody dispute.
Attorney Ellen L. Widen, who represented the boy's father in the custody case, cited attorney-client privilege in refusing to tell the court where her client had taken the child.
Widen said she agonized over the conflict between her obligations to her client and her legal position as an officer of the court, but decided as an officer of the court, but decided in the end that she had a stronger obligation not to violate her client's confidence.
After citing Widen for contempt of court and ordering her to jail, Howard County Circuit Court Judge Howard J. Cicone released her on personal recognizance pending the outcome of an appeal.
The child, Gabriel Benn, was taken from his mother's home by his father, Andrew K. Benn, on Feb. 16, after the couple had filed for divorce. As part of the divorce proceedings, the boy's mother, Paulette R. Benn, had been granted temporary custoy of her son, while the father was given visitation rights.
The question of attorney-client privilege came up at a hearing on whether the father should be held in contempt of court for not obeying the custody order.
Widen said she had asked long before Monday's hearing to be removed as Benn's lawyer because he consistently rejected her requests that he appear at a court hearings. The lawyer said she was "kept in the case unwillingly" by Judge Cicone, who refused to remove her from the case.
Neither Widen nor her attorney would comment on whether the child's father was aware that Widen might be sent to jail for refusing to reveal the child's whereabouts.
In finding Widen in contempt of court, Cicone said the benefits of upholding the attorney-client privilege were outweighed by other interests, including the possibility that a continuing crome was being committed.
Widen's attorney, Richard D. Gelfman, argued that compelling the lawyer to give information to the court was similar to compelling a defendant to take the witness stand to testify against himself, something the courts cannot demand.
"I did the research and read all the cases the judge cited and thought about it long and hard," Widen said. In the long run, "I felt I could not disclose.
"If the general circumstances were known, I think my decision is completely and 100 percent sensible, but if I were to reveal to the court all the circumstances involved, I would be violating the privilege," Widen added.
In addition to the prospect of jail, Widen said she was concerned over "being in a position where the judge feels I'm thwarting the court's order. I take my responsibilites very seriously," she said.
The Maryland State Bar's code of professional responsibility states that "a lawyer should preserve the confidences and secrets of a client" and provides for disciplining attorneys who disclose confidential information that might be detrimental to a client. The exceptions are for information revealed with consent, information about intention to commit a crime or necessary to prevent it, and information necessary to allow the lawyer to collect his fee. CAPTION: Picture, ELLEN L. WIDEN . . . agonized over the conflict