Beginning on February 1, the Supreme Court will publicly disclose documents on actions it is considering or taking to discipline lawyers who are members of its bar, long shielded in privacy, the Court announced on Tuesday. Currently, that file is treated as confidential, although final disciplinary actions are made public along with regular orders on pending cases. In the new arrangement, attorneys involved in a case may ask to keep their response confidential, in whole or in part.
Under the new disclosure policy, the Court’s announcement made clear, public availability of that docket will be the general rule. It will apply to documents filed after February 1. But if there are reasons to keep an attorney’s response confidential, that will be considered on a case-by-case, if sought by the lawyer involved. Typically, a lawyer is notified that potential disciplinary action is being considered by way of a “show cause” order, to which the lawyer then has a chance to respond and to argue against a disciplinary order.
One of the Court’s most noteworthy disciplinary cases now unfolding involves a “show cause” order issued on December 8, involving a Washington, D.C., attorney, Howard Neil Shipley. The order told him to respond within forty days on why he should not be sanctioned for his handling of a specific petition for review. There was no explanation of why that document may have involved a breach of the Court’s rules or of ethical rules. The petition at issue was rambling and, at several points, nearly incoherent. There was an indication that a non-lawyer may have had a central role in its drafting.
The forty days Shipley was given to respond have elapsed, but the Court — at his request — has now given him until February 19 to respond. It is unknown, at this point, whether the new public access policy will apply to the response to be filed in his case.