Was that Wrong? “Inexplicable Incompetence” and a Thomas Jefferson costume.

Was That Wrong? is a semi-regular column on Ethical Grounds. The column features stories of the absurd & outrageous from the world of legal ethics and attorney discipline. My aim is to highlight misconduct that I hope you’ll instinctively avoid without needing me to convene a continuing legal education seminar that cautions you to do so.

The column is inspired by the “Red Dot” episode of Seinfeld. In the episode, George Costanza has sex in his office with a character known only as “the cleaning woman.”  His boss finds out.  Here’s their ensuing exchange :

(Scene) In the boss’ office.

  • Boss: I’m going to get right to the point. It has come to my attention that you and the cleaning woman have engaged in sexual intercourse on the desk in your office. Is that correct?
  • George: Who said that?
  • Boss: She did.
  • George: Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.
  • Boss: You’re fired.
  • George: Well you didn’t have to say it like that.

The full script is HERE.  The scene is HERE.

costanza

Today’s story is an oldie that, I’m embarrassed to say, I only found last night.  It’s the story of a Kansas attorney who was disbarred for “inexplicable incompetence.”   The disbarment order is here.  It’s a doozy  I suggest you start, however, with the coverage from The Topeka Capital-Journal, the ABA Journal, or the Wichita Eagle.

I can’t do the story justice.  I’ll say this: it’s the story of a lawyer who dressed up as Thomas Jefferson for the supreme court hearing on whether he should be disbarred for thoroughly botching a capital murder case.  And there’s video.

Anyhow, someday I’ll get my YouTube channel up and running.  When I do, here’s how I imagine scripting this one:

  • Court: We’ll get right to the point.  It’s come to our attention that during a capital murder trial you didn’t have any idea what you were doing, didn’t seek help, agreed to a contingent fee in a criminal case, and told the jury that your client was a “professional drug dealer” and a “shooter of people.”
  • Lawyer: Who said that?
  • Court: The transcript says that.  It’s also come to our attention that you didn’t follow-up on evidence that your client’s cell phone records might provide an alibi.
  • Lawyer: (his ACTUAL REAL LIFE response) “I had no idea that cellphones had GPS capabilities at that time. Did you? I didn’t. If I had known it, I’d have been on it like a dog on a bone.”  (tech competence anyone?)
  • Court: Finally, it’s come to our attention that, during the penalty phase, after the jury had convicted your client, you argued that the jury should impose the death penalty for whoever had committed the crime.
  • Lawyer: Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead I ignorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon, you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.
  • Court:  Your are disbarred for inexplicable incompetence.
  • Lawyer:  (actual real life statement): “I am incompetent!” 
  • (long pause)
  • Lawyer.  But you didn’t have to say it like that.

 

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