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A course in legal ethics

Despite what many people may think about lawyers, the legal profession sets high standards of ethical conduct for licensed lawyers. The Idaho State Bar has set out those standards in its Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct (IRPC). Violation of the rules can result in disciplinary proceedings, including an offender’s loss of his or her license to practice law. Lawyers are required to know the rules and to comply with them.

The courts also set standards for lawyers, the most important of which is to maintain a relationship of trust with his or her clients. The Idaho Supreme Court has described the trust relationship as, “obligating the attorney to discharge that trust with complete fairness, honor, honesty, loyalty, and fidelity.” Among other things, that means an attorney must not sue his or her own clients.

The trust relationship applies to government attorneys. Last August, an Ada County Judge disqualified Attorney General Raul Labrador from pursuing civil investigative demands against one of his client agencies and some of its employees. The Judge wrote that “the attorney general owes those officials and agencies a duty of undivided loyalty and must exercise the utmost good faith to protect their interests.” Labrador was removed from the case for violating his ethical duty. He was also disqualified from suing his own client in another lawsuit that he filed against the Idaho Board of Education. He was ordered to pay the Board’s costs and attorney fees in the amount of $242,726.

Now we have the public spectacle of at least three public agencies warring against one another over dicey legislation that was designed to stop the sale of the old Transportation Department headquarters on State Street. Labrador can take a hefty share of the credit for this sad debacle. He ran for Attorney General with the promise of being “a true partner with conservative lawmakers…as they work to draft and write good laws.” It seems he dropped that ball on this one. Substantial questions were raised about the constitutionality of the transportation budget legislation that was rushed through the Legislature at the end of its session this year. Labrador failed to weigh in publicly about the constitutionality of the bill, resulting in the tangled mess of litigation that has piled up on the steps of the Idaho Supreme Court in the last several weeks.

The developers who sought to buy the bedraggled old hulk of a building filed suit to have the legislation preventing the sale struck down as violative of the Idaho Constitution. Labrador rushed forward with a brief purporting to represent his client executive agencies–the Transportation and Administrative Departments and the State Board of Examiners. It turns out his brief did not represent the positions of any of them. They all claimed he had failed to consult them, which appears to be the case. The brief he filed on their behalf mirrored the talking points of House Speaker Mike Moyle, the main architect of the suspect legislation. Moyle’s position is completely counter to that of the executive agencies. It certainly seems that Labrador breached the trust relationship with his client agencies and ignored the conflict-of-interest provisions of the IRPC.

Labrador claims that he was unaware of the Governor’s concerns about the legislation. Those of us who read the newspapers could have told him about the Governor’s concerns, which were widely publicized. It’s pretty much of a no-no for lawyers to file court papers without authorization from their clients and, particularly, to assert positions contrary to their interests.

After learning that the court papers Labrador filed for the executive agencies were dead wrong, the Transportation and Administration Departments hired their own lawyers to properly represent them in court. The Board of Examiners is apparently trying to figure out how its interests will be represented in the lawsuit. Speaker Moyle has also hired private counsel to assert his position in the food fight. In the good old days, the Attorney General would have tried to avert such a tangled mess of litigation. That is no longer the case. Now, political chaos trumps the provision of good legal counsel to state agencies. The public is the loser in this charade of justice.

Labrador promised he would not be a “yes man” for Governor Little. He should have told us he did not intend to be a “yes man” for the rules of ethical conduct that all Idaho lawyers are required to follow. Since Rule 8.3 of the IRPC requires Idaho lawyers to report professional misconduct on the part of a licensed attorney, we may not have heard the last of this.

 

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