The State Bar Convention offers a multitude of learning opportunities. But I’m only one guy, so I opted to attend a morning seminar titled “Lawyering in a Political Environment.” It was deemed a President’s Award winner, and it seemed a good way to start my own 2013 Convention experience.
Here’s what I discovered: The first seminar in the first day of the annual State Bar Convention largely had to do with a lawyer who had been disbarred by the State Bar. Quite a morning. But in that regard, the educational offering was probably unique among seminars that could be offered at bar conferences nationwide. Arizona is an interesting place.
The conversation was far ranging, but panelists and their moderator Robert Robb found themselves, more often than not, addressing ethical challenges created by former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas—now disbarred. And because of that, the seminar was a timely and relevant presentation to a packed house of attorneys who had learned firsthand about the risks of blending law and politics.
The panel was a powerhouse one:
- Former United States Attorney Paul Charlton
- Former Governor’s Counsel Joe Kanefield
- Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery
- Former Pinal County Attorney Jim Walsh
- Attorney Kelly Schwab
Robb asked panelists to offer their general views about lawyering in a public setting.
Paul Charlton opened by saying that “Public service is a noble enterprise. Every day your one, monolithic goal is to give back.”
He continued by discussing his most difficult decision as United States Attorney—one that had career-changing implications.
“My most difficult decision? Whether to seek the death penalty.”
Charlton made a choice that did not square with the thinking of the United States Attorney General and so, he said, “I got fired for it.”
“How do you deal with those who take a political view of the world, or with those who think the death penalty should be sought—not pursued—in every situation?”
Bill Montgomery stepped into an office in which the top prosecutor had made politicizing legal decisions the norm. Montgomery says his focus has been on changing that atmosphere.
“It’s about knowing what’s right and wrong, not what’s right and left.”
Joe Kanefield recalled the biggest challenge faced by lawyers in state government: “resisting pressure to pursue legal remedies for political challenges.”
Moderator Robb asked the panel if elected attorneys are “special” because they serve voters first.
“Andy Thomas thought he was special,” said Robb. “But who is the client? Should the criminal and civil functions be separated” to reduce the possibility of overreaching?
No, said Charlton. “I’d say that’s a solution in search of a problem,” because instances like that are rare, “except that we do have Andrew Thomas in our recent history.”
“But that was an aberration,” he continued. “Though it was awful for anyone caught in Thomas’ crosshairs,” the legal community generally “catches” such behavior before it becomes egregious.
Robb kept the focus on specifics when spoke about Bill Montgomery’s recent legal advice to County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox that she had a conflict in regard to the county’s civil suit involving Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But the focus remained on a former prominent attorney.
Charlton said, “It was right to go after Andrew Thomas; it was right to take his license.”
The whirlwind seminar included conversation about prosecutions of former Congressman Rick Renzi, Senator Ted Stevens, major league ballplayer Roger Clemens and others. And it extended beyond the practical challenges that prosecutors—especially elected prosecutors—face daily. It winded up with a discussion of possible changes to the Ethical Rules to accommodate the unique situations they may face. And at least one panelist recommended that young line prosecutors need a place to turn when challenges arise.
“We used to call them an ombudsman,” said Jim Walsh. “But whatever they’re called, we need someone in prosecutor offices that those attorneys can go to” when they develop the sense they are being asked to do questionable things to further political ends.Follow @azatty