Bar Set Lower For Bench

Lawyers appear to get stiffer penalties than judges for professional misconduct

January 3, 2008

Madison - Attorneys who violate rules governing their professional behavior and ethics – or who even fail to pay their annual State Bar dues on time – get stiffer punishment than the penalties being recommended for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler who had economic conflicts of interest in dozens of cases she handled as a circuit court judge, according to a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review.

WDC reviewed six years worth of state disciplinary investigations and penalties against attorneys and found attorneys had their licenses suspended – usually for two, three or six months – for violating Supreme Court rules that govern lawyer conduct, ethics and business practices. Those suspensions occurred even when their clients were not harmed, the attorney did not personally benefit or the breach was unintentional.

Some of the wrongdoing included failing to diligently represent their clients, incorrectly billing clients, mixing client money with their office or personal accounts, failing to meet continuing legal education requirements or pay State Bar dues and personal problems that interfered with their work.

Some of those attorney disciplinary cases and penalties include:

  • In 2007, the court suspended a Vilas County assistant district attorney for 90 days for continuing to handle cases after his license had been suspended in October 2003 for not paying his State Bar dues;
  • In 2002, the court suspended the license of a Minnesota attorney for 60 days for representing two clients in the same case in the mid-1990s with conflicting interests. That suspension was in addition to a continuing license suspension since 1999 for failing to meet Wisconsin’s continuing legal education requirements for lawyers;
  • In 1986, the court suspended a former La Crosse attorney’s license for three months for failing to preserve his client trust account records from a previous year and using some trust account funds to pay personal or business expenses. The investigation found that none of his clients suffered a loss as a result of his conduct and that he had not stolen any client money;
  • In 2003, a Sussex attorney was suspended for 60 days for improperly endorsing and disbursing an insurance company settlement check to his client and others in the case even though the investigation found his client was not harmed and the attorney did not personally benefit from his actions. Nevertheless, the high court ruled his “misconduct constitutes a serious breach of professional conduct and warrants suspension of his license to practice law;”
  • An attorney whose license was suspended since 2001 for not fulfilling continuing legal education requirements was denied reinstatement in May 2007 because of multiple instances of driving after his license was suspended or revoked, a 1999 citation for “loitering-illegal drug activity” and a substantial number of unpaid civil judgments against him;
  • In 2004, an attorney whose license had been suspended for three years due to alcoholism was reinstated. But to keep his license he had to submit quarterly psychiatric and other medical reports to the Office of Lawyer Regulation and consent to random breathalyzer and urine checks requested by the office for the next five years;
  • In November 2007, the court suspended an attorney’s license for 90 days for over-billing a client;
  • In 1989, a Milwaukee County assistant district attorney and Racine County assistant corporation counsel whose license had been suspended since 1981 for failure to pay State Bar dues and fulfill his continuing legal education requirements received an additional six-month suspension for practicing law while his license was suspended.

The state Office of Lawyer Regulation investigates complaints against attorneys accused of criminal activity, mishandling cases and breaking rules that govern the way they practice. Their investigation, recommended penalty and the accused attorney’s version of the incident are then reviewed by a lawyer or retired judge known as a referee, who makes a final disciplinary recommendation to the Supreme Court.

WDC asked the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which investigates complaints against judges and recommends disciplinary action to the Supreme Court, last March to investigate cases Ziegler handled as a Washington County circuit judge. The commission ruled in August that Ziegler had a conflict of interest when she handled 11 cases involving West Bend Savings Bank because her husband was on the board of directors. It recommended Ziegler be publicly reprimanded.

WDC also had asked the commission to investigate nine cases Ziegler handled in which she had investments of $50,000 or more in one of the parties. The commission recommended no punishment in those cases and also chose not to investigate dozens of other cases identified by the media and others Ziegler handled even though she had investments of $5,000 or more in one of the parties.

Ziegler’s attorneys and the commission said a public reprimand was in line with the discipline judges received in similar cases.

A special three-judge panel formed to review the commission’s investigation and recommend disciplinary action to the Supreme Court also recommended Ziegler receive a public reprimand.

“It’s not that attorney discipline should be more lenient, it’s that judges should be held to a standard of accountability that is at least as high as the standard for lawyers,” WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. “When a reprimand – at best – is standard discipline for judges who run afoul of ethics rules, the bar has been set too low. In fact, the bar couldn’t get any lower without digging a trench.”