Shameka O’Neil’s Hang Up (Update)

It was possibly correct that the plea deal for misdemeanor criminal mischief was a good outcome, with some caveats. But beyond that, Louisville defense attorney Shameka O’Neil’s conduct, toward her client, toward the court and, ultimately, in her infantile self-defense, goes from shocking to an honest-to-god holy shit moment. No, wait. See for yourself.

The video speaks for itself, from O’Neil’s disparagement of her client to her ultimately hanging up on the judge. If your face didn’t mirror Tracy Davis’ face, then watch it again.

But what the video fails to show is O’Neil’s subsequent self defense.

Later in the day, O’Neil joined Kaelin’s virtual courtroom again to ask the judge for clarification about the contempt order.

“Mark my words: If you take adverse action against me, you better be sure about it, because you made some mistakes here today,” O’Neil told Kaelin. “I will attempt to hold you civilly or however responsible that I can, and that’s my word.”

Mark her words to District Court Judge Julie Kaelin, Indeed, as threatening a court, wrongly on more levels than should be possible of an attorney, is not how most lawyers would address their contempt. But O’Neil’s got more to say about it.

In a phone interview, O’Neil said she’ll challenge the punishment, citing the judge’s “rudeness” and “disrespect” for her “off-the-cuff” remark. O’Neil contends she was fighting for what’s best for her client, Burns.

The judge, obviously, could not accept a plea from a defendant who asserts that he doesn’t understand what’s happening, even if it’s an otherwise decent deal. Whether the defendant suffered from mental illness is unclear, as there was no representation that he was diagnosed by a competent physician and O’Neil isn’t qualified to say so. And if true, then she was knowingly proffering a plea for an incompetent defendant.

But then her refusal to speak with her client, despite being given the opportunity to do so before proceeding, her disparagement of her client, her contumacious behavior toward the judge and her ultimate hanging up with the parting words, “I bet I don’t appear again,” richly deserved a contempt citation, if not more.

The assertions after court, however, reflect a perspective that’s even more troubling than unethical, incompetent and contemptuous conduct. Don’t “disrespect” her?

“As for that fine — straight cash homie,” O’Neil texted later. “Bottomline don’t disrespect me and try to humiliate me in front of my client and other professionals then think I’m going to sit there and take it whether you got on a robe or not I’m a person just like her I’m not her child nor do I work for her get respect and I give respect. Period.”

This reflects a shift among some young lawyers in their grasp of their relative relationship with courts and judges. Not only was O’Neil wrong, and disastrously wrong, in her grievance, but her delusion that she gets to decide whether the judge is being sufficiently respectful of her, and is somehow entitled to behave as she pleases in response, is off-the-wall nuts.

While most young lawyers save their bravado for social media, to tell the tales to their comrades of their courtroom bravery in response to judges, who are usually described as stupid and offensive, they don’t engage like this in real life or they, like O’Neil, would find themselves the target of outrage, ridicule and, of course, contempt.

There are judges who are intemperate, and if you believe that a judge has behaved improperly toward you, you can always choose to file a complaint against them. But what you cannot do it behave as O’Neil did here. More to the point, O’Neil, an eight-year-lawyer who should certainly know better, fundamentally misapprehends her place in the courtroom. The judge is in charge. She is not. The judge gets to rule. She does not. No, she’s not a child, but a lawyer, which is why her behaving like a child is inexcusable.

It may well be that O’Neil firmly believes that the plea agreement reached for her client was the best thing for him, and that she put in significant effort to help him to make the decision, to help him to understand why it was his best option and to do right by her client. Whether her belief was correct is impossible to say from a distance. No, that in no way excuses her disparagement of her client. She may well have been frustrated by the deal falling apart, and not interested in making yet another trip to the jail to speak to her client, but her frustration doesn’t change her duty to the defendant.

The subsequent bravado, like the inexplicable threat to the judge, might be her attempt to save face. This was obviously humiliating and, as has become unfortunately common, young lawyers tend not to take criticism well. Rather than concede her gross impropriety and apologize to the judge, she lashed out. Whether she was influenced by the childish sense of entitlement that has taken hold of young lawyers and their disrespect of the roles of judge and advocate is also unknown. Maybe she was being impetuous and belligerent because she couldn’t manage a mature response. Maybe she believes it. Who know?

Regardless, you don’t get to do this. Not to your client. Not to the court. Not if you want to be a lawyer. There will be times that judges say or do things that will make you sad, hurt your feelings. Tough nuggies. There will be times that judges rule in ways you think are wrong and you feel very strongly that you want to let them know how very wrong they are. Don’t do it. There are times you get caught, on video, behaving like an ignorant brat, unbecoming of a lawyer or in outrageous violation of your ethical duty to your client. Suck it up, apologize and hope that the judge will show you mercy.

Whatever you do, do not behave like Shameka O’Neil.

And if you do, take a deep breath, apologize profusely, recognize your multitude of legal and ethical failings, take your lumps and learn something.

Update: Before becoming a defense lawyer, it appears that O’Neil was a prosecutor in Jefferson County, Kentucky, where she encountered problems as well.

Take, for instance, Jefferson County prosecutor Shameka O’Neil, who last year resigned after falsely assuring a judge that no recording of a 911 call existed to be turned over to defense counsel in a stolen property case.  She had spoken personally to the Louisville Metro police, she told the court, to confirm the lack of a recording.  The problem being that, in fact, she had not spoken to the police, and there was a 911 call.  Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Barry Willett dismissed the case, citing O’Neil’s “outrageous conduct.”

H/T Marc Randazza

33 thoughts on “Shameka O’Neil’s Hang Up (Update)

    1. NMI

      HaHaHa, so did I have to look up the meaning of contumacious. I don’t understand the behavior of Ms. O’Neil and I hope she is sanctioned and humbled. But if you read the reason why she resigned from the prosecutor’s office, then maybe I do understand.

  1. Drew Conlin

    Just a curious and callow question but could the defendant have asked for her to be dismissed based on her (according to defendant) making claims he said were untrue?
    This is frightening. If ever there were an environment where a citizen facing charges needs an advocate that knows the procedure, formalities, law etc this is it. It scares me that you Mr. G. tell us it’s not as uncommon as it should be.

    1. SHG Post author

      The defendant could have, but that, too, has negative consequences for him (he would have to wait until new counsel was appointed, meet with his new attorney, reschedule court and take whatever action was decided), and would he be sufficiently aware of his rights to make the request?

      On the bright side, rarely are things as bad as here. This is extreme.

      1. norahc

        “On the bright side, rarely are things as bad as here. This is extreme.”

        Some days it seems like the extreme is becoming the new normal. Thankfully, people like you are fighting against that.

        Hopefully the state bar association takes notice and gives her some remedial CE’s on ethics and courtroom decorum.

        1. SHG Post author

          After people graduated law school, passed the bar, established law as their profession, bar disciplinary committees are very reluctant to destroy their careers. Some people should have been handed a dime in law school, before the student loans and years lost to a profession in which they did not belong. There is no CLE that will help.

      2. Jamison

        I have seen lesser versions of this in D.C. – a lawyer turning around and rolling eyes at the gallery or contradicting/bickering with client in open court – but yeah, it is pretty extreme.

        Not to excuse O’Neil’s behavior (and from what you say, this appears to be a pattern with her) but we cannot forget the extreme pressures on public defenders. We had a couple of melt-downs every year at the Philly PDs office. Some of the breakdowns happened in court. Others happened quietly, with the PD returning to the office, dropping off the files (or not), and then leaving never to return.

        Sounds like everyone is better off with O’Neil moving on.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not everyone is cut out to be a lawyer. Not every lawyer is cut out to do criminal defense. But it’s not about the lawyer, but the client, so if the lawyer can’t hack it, it might not make the lawyer a bad person, but just a person who needs to find a different way to spend their day than defending the accused.

  2. Miles

    The sheer narcissistic sense of entitlement is astounding, but it’s hardly unique. I see this in so many young lawyers. Someone lied to them and told them they are entitled to be treated with the “respect” they believe they deserve. I blame their parents. I blame their teachers. I blame their professors. But mostly, I blame them for not growing up.

  3. B. McLeod

    A tox screening might contribute some useful information. The few colleagues I have ever seen behaving in this fashion all had a common issue.

  4. Grizz

    Your casual attempts to generalize this atrocious behavior to “young lawyers” would be more persuasive if offered with any evidence whatsoever. Particularly when the lawyer here has been admitted for over ten years and is around 40 years old.

    1. JPB

      I also found the generalization odd and out of place. I expected the attorney in question to be newly admitted but the article points out that she has been admitted for eight years. I wonder what the author considers a young attorney. Is it a matter of age or a matter of experience?

      1. SHG Post author

        If you wanted an answer to a fair question, why not ask the author rather than a random ‘nym? The answer is a bit of both. To elder lawyers, meaning those over the age of ~40 and/or with 20+ years experience, this narcissistic entitlement has become a ubiquitous concern. Had Grizz been a regular reader here, he would have found dozens of examples. This is a blog post, part of an ongoing conversation, not an “article.”

        It’s not that all baby lawyers, which are below the age of 40 or with less than 20 years experience are like this. They’re not. But a shocking number are, and are reinforced by social media to believe that being a lawyer is about them, their feelings, their entitlement, rather than the client. Not all elder lawyers see it this way, but the vast majority do. Not all baby lawyers see it this way, but far too many do and are no shy about letting the world and judge know about it. It doesn’t always manifest in outrageous conduct as happened here, but it does manifest in greater concern for the lawyer’s “happiness” than the client’s representation.

        1. JPB

          I don’t often comment on articles or blogs, so I wasn’t sure where to put my question. I scrolled through the comments and saw that you read/reply to most things, so I thought it was likely you would see the question if I put it in a reply.

          I haven’t witnessed the kind of entitlement you’re describing but I don’t have a strong social media presence. The interactions I see are limited to the courtroom.

          1. SHG Post author

            On the one hand, not knowing who you are, what you see isn’t a helpful metric. On the other hand, this has been an ongoing concern for some of us, from private practice to judges to senior public defenders (both by experience and responsibility), for a while. Their new lawyers are not only of marginal competence, but impossible to train because they refuse to take direction, obsessed with their own emotional state and too often ignore the client’s needs because they conflate their cause with the client.

            Maybe you see this. Maybe not. This is what I’m talking about.

            1. JPB

              I suppose I wonder how social media is actually coming into play as opposed to media generally. What has led you to the conclusion that social media, and not something like a network legal drama, has caused the belief that the lawyer is the most important player?

            2. SHG Post author

              In the past, we learned, were mentored, received validation or criticism, from more experienced lawyers. Today, it’s all about validation by peers on social media. No discouraging words need be tolerated.

            3. JPB

              I don’t understand how you arrived at this conclusion. Just to be licensed attorneys have to attend an accredited law school, receive passing scores on the MPRE and the bar exam, and then apply for admission to the state bar. Internships and externships are expected if not required. All of this is controlled by more experienced attorneys. Just to gain entry into the profession new attorneys had to accept some level of criticism from a more experienced attorney.

            4. SHG Post author

              I have the curse of having done this a long time, and having heard from a great many lawyers, both young and old, and particularly from lawyers whose job it is to supervise new lawyers. It’s not a theoretical problem for me, but a very practical one. Again, since I have no idea who you are, what your experience is, I can’t determine your foundation of information. But the things you raise are unserious student level matters, which really have little to do with what we’re talking about and make me suspect you’re an academic and lack any real trench experience.

      1. SHG Post author

        I heard from Tracy Davis today, and she is not only a fine attorney and an even better person, but has been viciously attacked and outrageously blamed by O’Neil for this even though she had nothing to do with it.

  5. Marty

    The problem is societal these days. The term “respect” has been subverted to mean something other than what it does. Look up the word any you will find “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”. “YOU” do not get to dictate my feelings. Thus, YOU are not Owed my respect. YOU can readily have it, but only once you have thought, worked, or behaved in ways that cause that feeling within ME. Ms O’Neil certainly hasn’t done so thus far, and No, I have no respect for her.

  6. Buncy

    Shameka got herself on the Judges’ Union list long before she acted with contempt before Judge Kaelin. When you get on that list, it means you’ve ruffled all the judicial feathers.

    There was nothing disrespectful said or done by Judge Kaelin. Maybe Shameka O’Neil has a subconscious desire to be ejected from the practice of law.

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