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.
— Bad Legal Takes (@BadLegalTakes) January 19, 2021
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.
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