Giuliani and the rest of the efforts of the Trump campaign’s legal team won’t shift the election results in the president’s favor, but legal ethicists such as Scott Cummings of the UCLA School of Law do not view the former New York mayor as harmless.
“People are emailing me saying this is comical, and I’d say it would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous,” Cummings told The Washington Post on Monday in reference to Giuliani’s actions on Trump’s behalf. “We’re living through this moment where actions that should have consequences don’t seem to — at least not in a way we would have predicted in the past — and that erodes trust in the system.”
Trump and, to a lesser extent, those in his orbit have a track record of eluding consequences for violating democratic and political norms. And although a legal reckoning may still await Trump outside the White House, one congressional Democrat in New Jersey is pushing for lawyers such as Giuliani, who have enabled the president, to face swift and severe professional sanctions.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) filed complaints on Friday in five states against Giuliani and 22 other lawyers working with the Trump campaign, calling for them to be stripped of their law licenses for filing “frivolous” lawsuits and allegedly engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”
“Donald Trump has done great damage to this nation — but he has always had helpers. These lawyers are enabling his treachery and harming our democracy,” Pascrell told The Post through a spokesperson Monday. He called the campaign legal team’s effort to overturn election results with frivolous lawsuits "misconduct and an affront to the rule of law.”
Pascrell filed grievances with regulatory and disciplinary boards within the state bar associations in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Giuliani’s home state of New York.
Giuliani could not immediately be reached for comment but continued to make unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and election theft during his daily talk-radio program on WABC on Monday.
The threshold for disbarring a lawyer is high — reserved for only the most heinous instances of misconduct — and happens infrequently. In 2018, the American Bar Association’s Survey on Lawyer Discipline estimated that among the roughly 1.3 million active and licensed lawyers in the United States, 378 were involuntarily disbarred that year.
When it does happen, disbarment is harsh discipline. In states such as Nevada, one of the five where Pascrell filed complaints against Giuliani, disbarment permanently locks a lawyer out of practicing law in the state.
Pascrell insists that such punishment is warranted now. “Failure to hold Giuliani and his crew accountable by revoking their licenses will only invite further abuses by bad actors and push America closer to lawlessness and authoritarianism,” he said.
Cummings, the UCLA law professor, said it is unlikely that Giuliani will be disbarred in any of the five states where Pascrell filed a complaint; more plausibly, Pascrell’s grievances may prompt an investigation of Giuliani’s conduct that yields a lesser sanction. State bar associations can publicly or privately mete out discipline that includes written reprimands, corrective coursework, monetary fines and temporary suspension.
“These kinds of complaints raise the public profile of cases and put pressure on bar associations to take action,” said Cummings, who suggested that there’s a “strong case” for discipline against Giuliani because of his behavior both in and out of the courtroom.
“When you’re inside the courtroom, you have an ethical obligation to present claims that aren’t frivolous and are substantiated by evidence. We saw in Pennsylvania, with the strong rebuke from the judge, that was not met,” Cummings said. He cited the judge’s written response and the fact that Giuliani was forced to back off his earlier claims made in open court that the case was about voter fraud.
Out-of-court statements matter, too.
“As a lawyer, you have to demonstrate conduct that shows honesty,” Cummings said. “If you dig into ethics rules about what it means to be a lawyer, it means ultimately standing up for and promoting the rule of law as a core democratic value.”
Formal sanctions, including disbarment, will do little to chasten Giuliani if he has no plans to practice law after he finishes serving as Trump’s personal lawyer during the presidency, Cummings said.
But, Cummings said, such punishment would represent a spectacular fall for someone who was once “widely admired” in legal circles, holding the prestigious post of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in the 1980s.
“How he went from there to here is just perplexing,” Cummings said. “This is not practicing law. This is engaging in something that seems wholly different to me.”