Disciplinary system for lawyers examined; Panel to probe cutting hearings from two to one


In other professions where practitioners are licensed, a person suspected of wrongdoing gets one full-blown hearing where witnesses are questioned and cross-examined and where he or she can present evidence contradicting the accusations.

Except for lawyers, who can have two.

"Should you have an existing system of two factual hearings?" Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge asked yesterday, as the state's top court questioned a proposed streamlining of the lawyer discipline system that would keep the two-tier arrangement. "You give life imprisonment on the basis of one adjudicatory hearing."

Yesterday, the state's highest court told the committee that wrote the proposed revisions to look into one-hearing systems. That could lead to a major overhaul of the arrangement in place since 1975 but criticized by the American Bar Association as having "excess due process."

The judges voted 5-2, with Judges Irma S. Raker and Lawrence F. Rodowsky in the minority, to send the committee back to work -- this time working faster. The proposal on the table had been nearly a decade in the making. Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals and head of the rules committee, said he hoped the group would have alternatives for the top court by the end of the year.

Under the existing system, a complaint against a lawyer can go through as many as four tribunals, ending with the Court of Appeals disbarring or punishing the lawyer. The process can drag for years while the lawyer continues to practice. The lawyer can receive a full hearing in private and in public with a Circuit Court judge.

"We simply didn't find a need to change it," Murphy said when asked by Eldridge and Judge Alan M. Wilner why the committee of prosecutors, private-practice lawyers and judges proposed keeping two evidentiary hearings.

"The real issue is the extent to which we give the lawyers the ability to fight hard to have a complaint dismissed and keep it confidential," said Linda M. Schuett, Anne Arundel County attorney and vice chairman of the rules committee.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said the court needs to know whether another approach might be better.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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