Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Attorney Accuses State Bar of Violating First Amendment
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A prominent Beverly Hills attorney facing disbarment told the State Bar Court’s Review Department that the proceedings against him violate the First Amendment.
“You are bound to follow the U.S. Constitution,” Richard I. Fine told the panel. Fine argued that his persistent criticisms of judicial officers, voiced in repeated pleadings and motions in state and federal courts, cannot be the basis of judicial discipline.
Fine is contesting the recommendation of State Bar Court Hearing Judge Richard A. Honn that he lose his license as a consequence of “improper and vindictive reactions” to judicial rulings, in particular those of Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Bruce Mitchell. He is representing himself, and has done so for the entirety of the proceedings.
In his order last October, which directed that Fine be placed on involuntary inactive status pending further proceedings in the case, Honn said that Fine went on a “litigation rampage” against Mitchell after the commissioner awarded him less than the amount of interim attorney fees he was seeking for representing the plaintiffs in a class action regarding a phony doctor who had performed about 1,000 insurance physicals.
Among other misconduct, the hearing judge found, Fine filed 12 meritless challenges to Mitchell, including one challenge that had no apparent legal basis and was brought solely for harassment; filed a meritless appeal of a nonexistent order purportedly made by Mitchell; and filed frivolous challenges and petitions in another case solely to harass Mitchell and other bench officers.
Honn also found that Fine made misrepresentations to the courts by claiming that a visiting superior court judge had found that Mitchell was “not impartial” with respect to a case in which his disqualification was sought, when, Honn found, Fine knew that the judge had found that Mitchell was impartial and that the contrary statement in the minute order was a typographical error.
Fine has argued for years, in whatever forums have been available to him, that Los Angeles Superior Court judicial officers have an inherent conflict in hearing cases to which the county is a party because the county pays them “local judicial benefits” that supplement their state salaries.
The county maintains that there is no conflict because the benefits are not in any way dependent on the judicial officer ruling a particular way in a given case, and that payment of the benefits is necessary to attract and keep capable judges.
Fine’s First Amendment argument drew a skeptical reaction from Review Judge Judith Epstein, who noted that there were “numerous rulings” that Fine had willfully misstated facts in his papers. “Untruths, lies, and misrepresentations are not protected by the First Amendment,” Epstein said, suggesting that such statements constitute moral turpitude and are a basis for discipline.
Fine, however, insisted that he had done nothing dishonest and that judicial rulings to the contrary are substantively wrong and/or procedurally void. His assertions of his opinions regarding the judges’ rulings, he argued, do not in any event constitute moral turpitude.
The State Bar’s counsel, Kevin Taylor, said there was no attempt to curtail Fine’s free speech rights.
“This is not a First Amendment case,” Taylor argued. “This is not about the things that were said. It’s about the things that were done.”
Fine, he said, “wasted valuable court time” by filing frivolous suits and making “bold assertions that were rejected by the courts.” Disbarment is necessary, he said, because Fine continues to insist he did nothing wrong.
“He would do all of this again,” Taylor told the panel. “He has done all of this again....All of this will continue if Mr. Fine is allowed to remain an attorney.”
Fine also argued yesterday that he is, or at least ought to be, entitled to practice because the state Supreme Court has never entered an order placing him on inactive status. He attempted at the conclusion of his argument to move that the State Bar be ordered to revise its website to eliminate the reference to his being “Not Eligible to Practice Law,” but was rebuffed by Presiding Judge JoAnn Remke, who told him that all motions must be in writing.
Fine responded that he would file the motion “immediately.”
If the Review Department, and ultimately the Supreme Court, adopt the disbarment recommendation, it could mark the end of a legal career which began in 1973 and has included significant cases in antitrust and constitutional law, among other areas.
Fine said outside the courtroom, after the arguments had concluded, that he felt he had made his point.
“If the judges follow the law, we’ll win,” he said. “If they follow the politics, it’s an open question.”
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company