The Magazine

Obama's Injustice Department

The irresponsible Office of Professional Responsibility.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By MICHAEL STOKES PAULSEN
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Government lawyers in the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) appear to have leaked to the press parts of a confidential--and classified--draft report concerning the actions of Bush administration lawyers. The report calls for state bar associations to investigate, and perhaps discipline, attorneys who provided sensitive legal advice to President Bush's administration concerning the legal limits of coercive interrogation methods against high-level al Qaeda terrorists. That advice was, of course, controversial. It is now, in the current political climate, highly unpopular in certain circles. OPR has determined, apparently, that it was "unethical" to give it and that the lawyers involved should be punished.

How many things are wrong with this picture? From the perspective of legal ethics, constitutional law, and good government, I count at least five big problems.

1. The leak itself: Trial by innuendo and media exploitation is a McCarthyite tactic and is forbidden by the canons of legal ethics. So too is a breach of a lawyer's duty of confidentiality. Here, the original leak dates back to December, and it is not hard to discern a reason behind it: OPR's draft report was emphatically rejected by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey. What's a bureaucrat to do, when his views are repudiated by his boss? In Washington, the answer is to leak the views to the press. But for a lawyer, such conduct is among the most fundamental of ethical violations: The ABA's Rules of Professional Conduct state: "A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent."

Violating client confidentiality is a grave ethical breach. It is the type of conduct for which shoddy lawyers are routinely disbarred or suspended from the practice of law. In this case, to the extent the disclosure involves classified information, such conduct may well be a federal crime.

If the leak came from, or involved the knowing assistance of, lawyers in the OPR or elsewhere, they should be investigated and disciplined. It is outrageous to think that government "ethics" lawyers would engage in such blatantly unethical conduct. Who watches these watchdogs? OPR's reported actions suggest that the real need is for an ethics investigation of the Justice Department's ethics office.

2. Unconstitutionally outsourcing federal ethics responsibility: Then there is OPR's cowardly attempt to farm out ethics investigations to state bar authorities. This is a transparently political maneuver. It is also contrary to longstanding federal policy--and arguably to the Constitution. The Department of Justice has maintained that regulation of the ethics and conduct of federal government attorneys is a matter for the federal government, acting through the attorney general--not for state bar panels. Were it -otherwise, state officials could interfere with the conduct of federal officials. (Constitutional lawyers will recognize this as a problem under the Supreme Court's famous 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, which held that state laws may not interfere with federal officers' actions.)

Why would OPR recommend this? To impose political punishment (of a sort) on Bush attorneys, but without bearing accountability. The Obama Justice Department is, rightly, reluctant to take "disciplinary" action itself with respect to the attorneys who advised the prior administration. In the first place, it is not clear what it meaningfully could do since those involved no longer work for the executive branch. Second, it would smack of partisan payback (which it is). What better solution than to outsource the task to "neutral" bar authorities? But this is a transparent façade that should fool no one. And it is a ruse that would come back to harm Democratic as well as Republican administrations: Whenever you disagree strongly with lawyers' advice from a previous administration, don't just change the legal advice, ask state bar associations to investigate. This is an excellent formula only if your goal is to chill candid legal advice and government service by licensing retaliation against lawyers in prior administrations with whose views you disagree.