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Giuliani Suspension ‘Rare,’ Sends Message on Ethics, Honesty

June 25, 2021, 4:41 PM

A New York court ruling temporarily suspending Rudy Giuliani’s law license for “making false and misleading statements to courts” surprised legal ethics experts for its boldness.

This is a “once-in-a-generation decision,” said RonaldMinkoff, chair of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz’s professional responsibility group, who submitted the complaint to the New York Attorney Grievance Committee on behalf of several lawyers’ groups and attorneys.

The interim suspension handed down Thursday by the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, First Department is “hugely important” for the profession because it says that lawyers have to act honestly at all times, “perhaps especially in matters of great political import,” Minkoff said.

Minkoff acted after months of post-election legal maneuvering by Giuliani and other Trump supporters and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The former New York mayor played a leading role in lawsuits rejected by the courts, and he spoke at a rally prior to the riot, proposing the ballot outcome be decided through “trial by combat.”

Giuliani, a one-time U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and presidential hopeful, and other attorneys involved in the election challenge face other calls for professional discipline, including disbarment, in New York and elsewhere. But some petitions have been dismissed by legal experts because they are political in nature or because they weren’t filed as formal complaints with a disciplinary body.

Giuliani can still make his case to avoid discipline even though the court has signaled sanctioning is likely. Giuliani couldn’t be reached for comment.

High Standard

Interim suspensions are “relatively rare” and the standard is “very high,” said New York University legal ethics professor Stephen Gillers, who added he was “surprised and gladdened” by the decision.

They’re also generally imposed on lawyers who are found to have cheated their clients, Gillers said, which makes Giuliani’s suspension “unique.”

For a lawyer to get temporarily suspended, there has to be an “uncontroverted claim of misconduct” and an “immediate threat to the public interest,” the court said.

Giuliani made “multiple” false statements that were amplified on “multiple platforms,” it said.

The court cited Giuliani’s statements that thousands of felons and dead people voted, despite having no evidence, and that voting machines in Georgia had been manipulated.

And Giuliani didn’t stop spreading misleading information even though he was facing possible discipline, the court said, citing discussions he had in March and April on his radio show “Chat with the Mayor.”

The evidence shows he violated ethics rules prohibiting lawyers from making false statements to courts or third parties; prohibiting dishonesty or any conduct that reflects adversely on on the lawyer’s fitness as a lawyer, it said.

When attorneys make false statements, it “erodes the public’s confidence in the integrity of attorneys admitted to our bar and damages the profession’s role as a crucial source of reliable information,” it said.

The court said Giuliani’s misconduct “will likely result in substantial permanent sanctions at the conclusion of these disciplinary proceedings.”

Disciplinary authorities can be hesitant to pursue ethics complaints against celebrity lawyers because of the resources they demand or because they touch on politics, ethics experts said.

The D.C. Bar in May dismissed a complaint against former Attorney General Bill Barr, citing politics related to his work at the Justice Department under Trump.

But the court’s ruling in the Giuliani matter “is the very best in the legal profession policing itself,” New York lawyer Christine Chung said. Chung helped write an ethics complaint filed in January against Giuliani by Lawyers Defending American Democracy when she was with the group.

In November, Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), filed an ethics complaint against Giuliani in New York, saying that the former mayor “has participated in frivolous lawsuits and used our nation’s courts to assault public confidence in the United States electoral system, violating the New York Rules of Professional Conduct.”

The New York State Bar Association, of which Giuliani is a member, said in January that it had received “hundreds” of complaints against him.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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