BEYOND BARS: Dirty Lawyers and Crooked Judges

By Gabriel Arkles, NLG member and professor at Northeastern University School of Law

Most defense attorneys—especially public defenders—are good people doing their best in a shitty system. And some are truly amazing. But there are some who flout the rules. These are the private lawyers who pressure you and your family to pay them your last dime to get you out, but end up just screwing you over. And the prosecutors who take shortcuts in their hurry to put more people behind bars. And the judges who aren’t even close to unbiased.

When a lawyer or judge acts unethically, the main thing you can do is file a complaint with the office that oversees them. Filing a complaint won’t get you out of prison or get you money. But it may get the lawyer or judge disciplined. If you think a lawyer or judge is acting badly, filing a complaint can be a way of reducing the chance she will harm others.

Sometimes, if a defense attorney, prosecutor, or judge acted unethically in your case in a big way, you can also use that in an appeal. The appellate court might order a new trial if the ethical problems impacted the outcome. You don’t have to file a complaint to use these arguments in an appeal.

What’s “ethical” for lawyers
Ethical rules vary from state to state. But generally, your lawyer is supposed to work hard, be honest with everyone, respect your decisions about goals, and be loyal to you. Prosecutors are supposed to work hard, be honest with everyone, and pursue justice.

Here are some signs of ethical problems for lawyers:

  • Lying
  • Encouraging other people to lie
  • Not trying hard and making many obvious mistakes
  • Saying messed up, biased things about race, gender, disability, nationality, sexuality, or religion
  • Taking a case when there’s a conflict of interest (for example, if your lawyer’s brother is the complaining witness in the case, or if the prosecutor used to represent you before becoming a prosecutor)
  • For your lawyer, promising to do things on your case and then not doing them
  • For your lawyer, sharing your personal info without your permission
  • For your lawyer, forcing you to take or reject a plea offer against your will
  • For your lawyer, not updating you about your case even when something major has happened
  • For a prosecutor, going forward with a case without probable cause
  • For a prosecutor, not sharing info that could help the defense

Here are some things that aren’t signs of ethical problems for lawyers:

  • Losing a case
  • Making a mistake
  • Not doing everything you thought the lawyer should do, or not doing everything the way you wanted it done
  • For your lawyer, urging you take a plea, even if you disagree
  • For a prosecutor, going after you even though plenty of people have done worse things
  • Your lawyer and the prosecutor acting friendly with each other

What’s “ethical” for judges
Ethical rules for judges also vary from state to state. But generally, they are supposed be fair and impartial.

Here are some things that are ethical problems for judges:

  • Bribery and corruption
  • Saying messed up, biased things about race, gender, disability, nationality, sexuality, or religion
  • Talking about the case with one side while the other side isn’t there
  • Judging a case that would affect the judge personally

Here are some things that aren’t ethical problems for judges:

  • Making a bad decision
  • Making a mistake
  • Speaking in a condescending way
  • Acting friendly with lawyers

In California, prosecutor Robert Murray brought charges against a defendant for child molestation. The defendant made a statement. Murray changed the statement, adding a confession the defendant never made. Murray gave the fake confession to the defense attorney while negotiating a plea agreement, and the defense attorney eventually figured out it was fake. The judge dismissed the charges against the defendant. The prosecutor was suspended from practicing law for one year. Matter of Murray, No. 14-O-00412, 2016 WL 6651388 (Cal. Bar Ct. Nov. 10, 2016).

In the “cash for kids” scandal in Pennsylvania, Judge Mark Ciavarella took around $1 million in bribes from the builders of juvenile jails. Ciavarella was convicted of various felonies and sentenced 28 years in prison. He was also removed from judicial office, and is not eligible to become a judge again. Some of his convictions and sentences of young people got thrown out. In re Ciavarella, 108 A.3d 983, 984 (Pa. Ct. Jud. Disc. 2014).

In Maryland, a woman hired Melodie Schuler to try to reduce her son’s prison sentence. Schuler didn’t do anything on the case. She missed a deadline and lied to her client and his mother about it. She promised to visit her client in prison, but didn’t. When the client and his mother complained, she made excuses and asked for more money. Her client finally filed a complaint against her, and she got disbarred. Attorney Grievance Comm’n of Maryland v. Shuler, 454 Md. 200, 164 A.3d 209, 210 (2017).

How to Complain
Most states have one way to complain about judges, and another way to complain about lawyers. Sometimes they have specific forms you should fill out and rules you should follow. You usually need to complain in writing, giving the lawyer’s or judge’s name and specifics about what happened.