Two lawyers in their early 30s threw a Molotov cocktail into a police car. There were no cops inside, which may have mattered or not, but at least they killed no one when they chose, in their self-indulgent passion, to throw a bomb. They have now pleaded guilty to the crime, so they no longer enjoy the presumption of innocence. And they are no longer lawyers.
Although the court’s order was released Tuesday, it retroactively dated the start of their disbarment to June 2, when Mattis and Rahman admitted in Brooklyn federal court to conspiracy to commit arson and possess an explosive device.
In New York, lawyers are automatically disbarred upon conviction of a felony, without regard to whether the crime related in any way to the practice of law, to the lawyer’s honesty or integrity, or to the lawyer’s treatment of his clients. In the usual course, that a defendant is a lawyer and will, upon conviction, be disbarred, is taken into account in formulating the appropriate sentence. Not only will the lawyer-defendant suffer incarceration, but the loss of three years of his life, the cost of tuition (or student debt) for law school and the loss of his career after he’s completed his sentence. These are punishments other defendants will not suffer and are properly considered in formulating a parsimonious sentence.
But should a lawyer, or these two lawyers more specifically, filled with sufficient passion and righteousness to bomb a police car as all around them are losing their heads, be disbarred? Granted, they engaged in an act of violence, of destruction, that could very well have harmed or killed someone, but was their offense any different than the offenses of many “well-intended” young people filled with more outrage than reason?
There is a serious argument to be made that when the offence bears no relation to the practice of law or the dishonesty of the lawyer that might manifest in abusing the trust of clients, why is disbarment necessary or appropriate? After all, these lawyers engaged in conduct surrounded by thousands (if not millions) of others who shared their outrage, even if they didn’t happen to have a spare Molotov cocktail in their backpack.
Their motivation was to pursue “justice” as they were capable of understanding it for black people from police and some meaninglessly vague “system.” While their actions were horrible, as often happens with immature children, their purpose was pure. So why disbar them and squander their education and skill rather than redirect it for good rather than evil?
Inherent in any crime is one hard, cold fact* that is very hard to ignore. The perpetrators knew, before engaging in the conduct, that they were about to commit a crime and yet engaged in the conduct anyway. This is particularly true for lawyers, as non-lawyers may have a more plausible claim to be unaware of the law. Lawyers, not so much.
By choosing to engage in conduct that they knew (or should have known, but when it comes to bombing a cop car, certainly knew) to be a crime, they demonstrated a few critical things about themselves.
First, they showed that they lack the personal judgment to resist the impulse to commit a crime. Lawyers are presented with myriad opportunities to commit crimes, often with greater finesse than Michael Avenatti or Tom Girardi so that we never get caught. But we do not, because we value our integrity more than whatever we would get out of the crime, whether for us or for the cause.
Second, they showed that they lack the willpower to resist the mob. These two lawyers didn’t set out on their own one random day to burn a cop car, but joined with a mass of people and only then decided that the need to bomb an RMP was irresistible. Most lawyers resist such impulses, not out of fear of consequences but because we choose not to commit crimes.
Third, they showed that they were willing to put what they believed to be a righteous cause ahead of what the law commands. Regardless of how one feels about the cause of these two lawyers, the idea that their belief in it was of greater value than their adherence to the law is intolerable. We all have things we believe to be important, often so important that we would risk all for it. And indeed, that’s the nature of disobedience, that we are prepared to risk all. Part of that “all” is one’s license to practice law, and they have now made clear that their respect for the law is secondary to their politics.
But isn’t disbarment the loss of a valued right, which should no more happen to lawyers than to, say, voters or gun owners? No. Being a lawyer was never a right, but a privilege. We are entrusted with the lives and fortunes of others, and are required to earn that trust every day. It’s really not all that hard to do so when it involves not throwing a Molotov cocktail into a police car.
And what of our desire for convicted felons to serve their sentences, pay their debt to society, and then be given the opportunity to succeed and live a law-abiding life? That’s still the case, and the knowledge they possess from law school doesn’t disappear and can be used in many occupations for their advantage. But they just can’t be lawyers anymore, and that’s how it should be.
*Yes there are exceptions, but that’s a post for another day.