Bomb Throwers Disbarred

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.

Suspended Pryor Cashman associate Colinford Mattis and public interest attorney Urooj Rahman are pictured in photos taken by U.S. authorities following their arrests in New York on May 30, 2020. U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York/Handout via Reuters

New York’s Appellate Division, First Department said Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman qualified for automatic disbarment based on their guilty pleas in June.

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.

21 thoughts on “Bomb Throwers Disbarred

  1. Kathleen Casey

    Who didn’t see this coming. So long. They are no reflection on other lawyers, that I always knew.

  2. Hal

    Speculation is that there was fierce debate w/ the ABA over whether to award these two the prestigious “Oscar ‘Zeta’ Acosta Award” for their actions in redefining what “radical legal defense looks like for oppressed people”.

    Neither Hunter Thompson, nor Patrisse Cullors were available for comment.

  3. B. McLeod

    Law enforcement may be a lower echelon of the justice system, but it is still part of the justice system. Physically attacking police infrastructure was waging war against the justice system, against social order, against the state, and against the rule of law these mooks were sworn to uphold. In taking this action, they abandoned their oaths and their former status as officers of the court. The disbarment is simply making it official.

  4. Mike V.

    “But isn’t disbarment the loss of a valued right, which should no more happen to lawyers than to, say, voters or gun owners?”
    What valued right is that? Voting is mentioned in the Constitution and firearms ownership is one of the enumerated rights, but I must have missed the right to be an attorney in there.

    “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?”
    They can still succeed and live a law-abiding life. They just can’t be lawyers. They might even still find work in the legal industry as paralegals, if a felony conviction isn’t a bar to becoming one.

    But, as the saying goes: “They fu*ked around, and found out.”

  5. Guitardave

    I’m sorry to tell you this Scott, but in another 60 yrs, when reality makes Idoicracy look like a self-improvement film, these two will be touted as the pioneers of the ‘honest lawyer movement’ that started in the early Twenty-worst century.There will be law school courses parsing and praising their ethics…

      1. Guitardave

        Been busier some mornings lately, but I’m still around.
        Still commenting, too …but they don’t make the cut.
        I’m in my yearly Scorpionic, introspective, self-loathing, so-what-the-fuck-did-you-accomplish-this-year? funk, ( it’s like a person with MPD having a 28 day ‘struggle session’ with himself 🙂 …I get a bit more cynical for a spell, but I get over it.)
        And don’t forget that sometimes missing a friend is way easier than having to rip them a new one for saying something that’s stupid and way out of line.

  6. Elpey P.

    Brought to you by the folks who preach about the importance of picking sides – on their terms – if you don’t want to be judged as complicit. And maybe cancelled consequenced.

    I fought the law
    and the law won

  7. Lee Keller King

    “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”

    And who knows, after they serve their time they may be able to get licensed in, say, Washington, DC, which apparently puts less emphasis on a lawyer being law abiding (if the law breaking was for the “right” cause).

  8. Fubar

    In mitigation, they did not use the non-word “irregardless”, thereby avoiding a crime against the English language.

    For their crime which was rude, crude and artless,
    They’ll spend many years with a wardress.
    Whether in- or outside,
    They’ve grammatical pride:
    The struggle continues regardless.

  9. RCJP

    Their motivation was to pursue “justice” as they were capable of understanding it for black people from police and some meaninglessly vague “system.”

    If the justice system is meaninglessly vague to two lawyers, they probably were not very good lawyers anyway.

  10. Drew Conlin

    After reading the comments as crude as it may be it might be necessary to tell people embarking on anything that has taken dedication , sacrifice, money and time to accomplish…
    …. Don’t fuck it up

  11. DaveL

    I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on the possibility of a future pardon. I agree that simply having paid one’s debt to society doesn’t demonstrate that one has earned back the public’s trust, or esteem for one’s judgement and integrity. But don’t you think it should be possible to earn back that trust, eventually, and demonstrate you’re no longer the person you once were?

  12. Rxc

    I seem to have a vague memory of a revolutionary document that called for some extreme action, and mentioned that it would involve pledging the ” lives, fortunes, and sacred honor ” of the adherents.

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