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Disbarment is the removal of a lawyer from a bar association or the practice of law, thus revoking his or her law license or admission to practice law. Disbarment is usually a punishment for unethical or criminal conduct. Procedures vary depending on the law society.
In April 1933, the Nazi government issued a Berufsverbot forbidding the practice of law by Jews, communists, and other political opponents, except for those protected by the Frontkämpferprivileg.
Generally disbarment is imposed as a sanction for conduct indicating that an attorney is not fit to practice law, willfully disregarding the interests of a client, or engaging in fraud which impedes the administration of justice. In addition, any lawyer who is convicted of a felony is automatically disbarred in most[where?] jurisdictions, a policy that, although opposed by the American Bar Association, has been described as a convicted felon's just deserts.
In the United States legal system, disbarment is specific to regions; one can be disbarred from some courts, while still being a member of the bar in another jurisdiction. However, under the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which have been adopted in most states, disbarment in one state or court is grounds for disbarment in a jurisdiction which has adopted the Model Rules.
Disbarment is quite rare (in 2011, only 1,046 lawyers were disbarred). Instead, lawyers are usually sanctioned by their own clients through civil malpractice proceedings, or via fine, censure, suspension, or other punishments from the disciplinary boards. To be disbarred is considered a great embarrassment and shame, even if one no longer wishes to pursue a career in the law.
Because disbarment rules vary by area, different rules can apply depending on where a lawyer is disbarred. Notably, the majority of US states have no procedure for permanently disbarring a person. Depending on the jurisdiction, a lawyer may reapply to the bar immediately, after five to seven years, or be banned for life.
Notable U.S. disbarments
The 20th and the 21st centuries have seen one former U.S. president and one former U.S. vice president disbarred, and another president suspended from one bar and caused to resign from another bar rather than face disbarment.
Former Vice President Spiro Agnew, having pleaded no contest (which subjects a person to the same criminal penalties as a guilty plea, but is not an admission of guilt for a civil suit) to charges of bribery and tax evasion, was disbarred from Maryland, the state of which he had previously been governor.
Former President Richard Nixon was disbarred from New York in 1976. for obstruction of justice related to the Watergate scandal. He had attempted to resign from the New York bar, as he had done with California and the Supreme Court, but his resignation was not accepted as he would not acknowledge that he was unable to defend himself from the charges brought against him.
In 2001, following a 5-year suspension by the Arkansas bar, the United States Supreme Court disbarred Bill Clinton, providing 40 days for him to contest the action. He resigned before the end of the 40 day period, avoiding permanent disbarment hearings.
In 2007, Mike Nifong, the District Attorney of Durham County, North Carolina who presided over the 2006 Duke University lacrosse case, was disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct related to his handling of the case.
In April 2012, a three-member panel appointed by the Arizona Supreme Court voted unanimously to disbar Andrew Thomas, former County Attorney of Maricopa County, Arizona, and a former close confederate of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. According to the panel, Thomas "outrageously exploited power, flagrantly fostered fear, and disgracefully misused the law" while serving as Maricopa County Attorney. The panel found "clear and convincing evidence" that Thomas brought unfounded and malicious criminal and civil charges against political opponents, including four state judges and the state attorney general. "Were this a criminal case," the panel concluded, "we are confident that the evidence would establish this conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt."
Jack Thompson, the Florida lawyer noted for his activism against video games, rap music, and Howard Stern was permanently disbarred for various charges of misconduct. The action was the result of several grievances claiming that Thompson had made defamatory, false statements and attempted to humiliate, embarrass, harass or intimidate his opponents. The order was made on September 25, 2008, effective October 25. However, Thompson attempted to appeal to the higher courts in order to avoid the penalty actually taking effect. Neither the US District court, nor the US Supreme Court would hear his appeal, rendering the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court final.
Ed Fagan, a New York lawyer who prominently represented Holocaust victims against Swiss banks, was disbarred in New York (in 2008) and New Jersey (in 2009) for failing to pay court fines and fees; and for misappropriating client and escrow trust funds.
F. Lee Bailey, noted criminal defense attorney, was disbarred by the state of Florida in 2001, with reciprocal disbarment in Massachusetts in 2002. The Florida disbarment was the result of his handling of stock in the DuBoc marijuana case. Bailey was found guilty of 7 counts of attorney misconduct by the Florida Supreme Court. Bailey had transferred a large portion of DuBoc's assets into his own accounts, using the interest gained on those assets to pay for personal expenses. In March 2005, Bailey filed to regain his law license in Massachusetts. The book Florida Pulp Nonfiction details the peculiar facts of the DuBoc case along with extended interviews with Bailey that include his own defense. Bailey is also best known for infamously representing murder suspect O. J. Simpson in 1994.
- Gentile, Michael A.; McShea, Sarah Diane (1985–1986), Automatic Disbarment: A Convicted Felon's Just Deserts, 13, Hastings Const. L.Q., p. 433
- Finkelstein, Brian (2007). "Should Permanent Disbarment be Permanent?". The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.[dead link]
- See In re Nixon, 53 A.D.2d 178, 385 N.Y.S.2d 305 (1st Dept. 1976)
- "Archived copy". July 9, 1976. Archived from the original on 2007-10-28. Retrieved 2007-10-08.
- Tom Goldstein. "New York Court Disbars Nixon for Watergate Acts". New York Times. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- "Clinton Disbarred From Practice Before Supreme Court". New York Times. October 1, 2001. Archived from the original on December 5, 2017.
- "Clinton barred from practicing before Supreme Court". CNN. October 2, 2001. Archived from the original on April 3, 2013. Retrieved November 4, 2012.
- "Clinton asks to quit Supreme Court Bar". CNN.com. November 9, 2001. Archived from the original on December 9, 2007. Retrieved September 20, 2007.
- "iWannaGetThat - Retroville - 1948 - In the News - Alger Hiss". Retrieved 6 April 2015.
- ABC News. "Former Duke Prosecutor Nifong Disbarred". ABC News. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
- Rudolf, John (April 11, 2012). "Arizona Prosecutor Disbarred For Plotting Bad Arrests With 'America's Toughest Sheriff'". Huffington Post.
- Mike Fahey. "Jack Thompson Disbarred". Kotaku. Gawker Media. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
- Noeleen G. Walder. Lawyer Disbarred for Failing to Pay Sanctions, Fees in Holocaust Case. New York Law Journal. December 12, 2008. http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202426698941
- Koloff, Abbott. NJ: Disbar ex-Parsippany lawyer for stealing from Holocaust survivors. Daily Record. January 22, 2009.
- Fuchs, Mary (January 24, 2009). "Lawyer Edward Fagan is disbarred in N.J. for misusing Holocaust victims' funds". New Jersey Real-Time News. Retrieved on October 14, 2009.
- "F. Lee Bailey mounts a comeback". msnbc.com. Retrieved 6 April 2015.