It’s Official: Lawyers Are Incapable Of Understanding Civility

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has ruled, as a matter of law, that lawyers are unable to understand what “courtesy and respect” means.
OK, a little more detail on that one: outspoken Michigan lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, best known for representing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and for running as the Democratic candidate for Governor of Michigan in 1998, was disciplined under Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct 3.5(c), which prohibits lawyers from “undignified or discourteous conduct” toward judges and courts, and Rule 6.5(a), which requires lawyers to treat everyone involved in the legal process with “courtesy and respect.” Fieger’s original grievance stemmed from a Michigan appellate court decision that reversed a medical malpractice verdict, finding that he had

(1) without any basis in fact, accused defendants and their witnesses of engaging in a conspiracy, collusion, and perjury to cover up malpractice, (2) asserted without any basis in fact that defense witnesses had destroyed, altered, or suppressed evidence, and (3) insinuated without any basis in fact that one of the defendants had abandoned the plaintiff’s medical care to engage in a sexual tryst with a nurse. The panel described Mr. Fieger’s misconduct as “truly egregious” and “pervasive” and concluded that it “completely tainted the proceedings.”

The Michigan Supreme Court described how Fieger responded to the decision by this panel – and for all the practicing attorneys in the audience, I would not advise you to try this yourself:

Three days later, on August 23, 1999, Mr. Fieger, in a tone similar to that which he had exhibited during the Badalamenti trial and on his then-daily radio program in Southeast Michigan, continued by addressing the three appellate judges in that case in the following manner, “Hey Michael Talbot, and Bandstra, and Markey, I declare war on you. You declare it on me, I declare it on you. Kiss my a**, too.” Mr. Fieger, referring to his client, then said, “He lost both his hands and both his legs, but according to the Court of Appeals, he lost a finger. Well, the finger he should keep is the one where he should shove it up their a**es.”
Two days later, on the same radio show, Mr. Fieger called these same judges “three jackass Court of Appeals judges.” When another person involved in the broadcast used the word “innuendo,” Mr. Fieger stated, “I know the only thing that’s in their endo should be a large, you know, plunger about the size of, you know, my fist.” Finally, Mr. Fieger said, “They say under their name, ‘Court of Appeals Judge,’ so anybody that votes for them, they’ve changed their name from, you know, Adolf Hitler and Goebbels, and I think – what was Hitler’s – Eva Braun, I think it was, is now Judge Markey, she’s on the Court of Appeals.”

The Federal District Court, however, overruled the State Supreme Court on the federal constitutional question of whether the Michigan rules are vague, overbroad, and “are so imprecise that persons of ordinary intelligence must guess at their meaning.” It’s the latter ruling that prompted the District Court to conclude:

One person’s courtesy may be another person’s abomination. For example, a man extending his hand in greeting may be a courtesy to many. To others, it may be a violation of a fundamental belief. Thus, the chance of selective enforcement based on the judiciary’s sensibilities is too great for these rules to withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Yes, and one man’s threat to put his fist up….well, there is probably merit to the conclusion that rules of this nature are overbroad and give the judiciary power to sanction legitimate speech. But I fail to see how there is any possible basis for saying that Fieger was unable to understand that he was crossing and leaving far behind in the dust any pretense at the minimal level of decency and civility that an attorney is supposed to show to the courts he practices before. Unless lawyers really are unable to understand what “courtesy and respect” means.