President Bush's most recent nominee to the federal appeals court in Washington practiced law for three years in the District without a valid license because he did not pay his annual dues to the local bar association.
Thomas B. Griffith reported in his nomination questionnaire that his membership with the D.C. Bar -- a requirement for practicing law in the District -- was suspended from November 1998 until November 2001 "due to a clerical oversight." During that period, Griffith was the legal counsel representing the Senate in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, in 1998 and 1999 and a partner in the D.C. law firm of Wiley Rein & Fielding in 1999 and 2000.
Griffith, who now is general counsel for Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and whom Bush nominated last month to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, declined to comment on his licensing lapse when reached by telephone yesterday.
The Justice Department acknowledged the lapse yesterday and said Griffith took the appropriate steps to be reinstated into the D.C. Bar as soon as he learned of the problem in late 2001, after he moved his practice to Utah.
"As many people do, he relied on the administrative staff at his firm to handle bar dues and he did the same thing when he was at the Senate," said John Nowacki, department spokesman. "As soon as he realized the situation, he paid the dues and the problem was resolved." Nowacki declined to comment on whether the matter was serious.
But some legal ethics experts and bar association officials said allowing one's law license to lapse for more than a year or two is a significant violation that raised questions about how seriously the person views licensing requirements and court rules.
"He was practicing law without a license, and that is a very serious problem," said Mark Foster, a lawyer at Zuckerman Spaeder who specializes in legal ethics. "The judge is the guy who enforces the rules. Do you really want a guy to enforce the rules who doesn't obey the rules?"
It is a violation of court rules to practice law in the District without a current bar membership and active license. Some D.C. lawyers recently have been admonished by the court's legal disciplinary office for practicing without a current license, court disciplinary records show. A small number have received 90-day suspensions for not paying their dues for a more than two years, or knowingly practicing law while not paying their dues.
In some states, it is a crime for a lawyer to practice without a local license. Maryland recently disbarred a lawyer who had a valid D.C. license but did not have a Maryland license when the lawyer set up a law office in the state. The District then disbarred the same lawyer.
Fred F. Fielding, a partner at Wiley Rein, said his firm is careful to comply with the District's licensing requirement and created an in-house annual licensing renewal system to be sure its lawyers remained in good standing. He said he investigated the problem yesterday and learned staff members had mistakenly failed to add Griffith to an automatic renewal list for his bar license. "Obviously, we take it very seriously, because that's a prerequisite to practice law here," said Fielding, who was White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan. "It's important."
Joyce E. Peters, executive director of the Office of Bar Counsel, the court arm that investigates whether lawyers are complying with court rules, said that in general a lapse of a year can be explained as a failure to remember or notice, but a lapse of two years is suspect.
"After two cycles go by . . . it's generally much more questionable," she said. "At what point do you remember your car hasn't been inspected?"
In one case of a lawyer not paying his dues, the D.C. Court of Appeals agreed to sanction him and stated that "two years is clearly an excessive period of time in which to neglect payment."
One advocacy group that monitors the judicial nomination process, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, called for the Senate and Justice Department to fully investigate Griffith's licensing lapse and said his confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin June 16, should be postponed until that review is done.
"In some states this is a crime," said Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the group. "Three years sounds like a long time to have an administrative error."