14 July 2003

Once in a while, the legal system does manage to keep a bad lawyer from ever becoming a member of the bar. Such is the case of Matthew Hale. Hale's sordid tale is instructive for nonlawyers who wonder why the legal system acts the way it does—not because it happened, but because it's so [unbelievably foul and offensive expletives deleted] rare.

In an opinion released today, the Seventh Circuit described Mr. Hale's situation like this:

Matthew Hale is a public advocate of white supremacy and the leader of an organization (formerly called the World Church of the Creator [note 1]) dedicated to racism and anti-Semitism. He comes before us today because he seeks to be admitted to practice law in the state of Illinois. The Illinois State Bar [sic] requires applicants not only to demonstrate proficiency in the law on a written bar examination, but also to pass a character and fitness exam. Hale succeeded in satisfying the first of these hurdles, but not the second. His defeat came at the hands of the Committee on Character and Fitness (Committee) appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court, which found him unfit to practice law.

1. In TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation-Family of URI, Inc. v. World Church of the Creator, 297 F.3d 662 (7th Cir. 2002), we ordered Hale to rename the organization, formerly known as the World Church of the Creator, for infringing on another group’s trademark. Hale refused to comply. Earlier this year, Hale was arrested for conspiring to kill the district court judge presiding in the trademark infringement case, and is currently being held without bond. Jodi Wilgoren, White Supremacist is Held in Ordering Judge’s Death, N.Y. Times, Jan. 9, 2003, at A1. In light of these events, it is difficult to imagine that the Committee would vote positively today in favor of Hale’s character and fitness, though that is not the strict issue before us today.

Hale v. Committee on Character and Fitness for the State of Illinois, et al., No. 02–1716 (7th Cir. Jul. 14, 2003), slip op. at 1–2.

The case being heard by the Seventh Circuit was decided on a technical, procedural ground. What is most worrisome is that Mr. Hale's circumstances are so rare. So far as I have been able to determine, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission had refused no other applicant on character-and-fitness grounds since the late 1970s who did not have either a felony conviction (or civil liability finding for fraud) or current issues with mental health (including substance abuse). One can only wonder if the legal profession might be viewed more as a profession, and if it might better fulfill its societal role, if the ARDC and its counterparts in other states had been somewhat less of a rubberstamp on character and fitness. I will not claim that the profession has only a few bad apples—it has a lot of them, perhaps as much as a third of the active bar being disbarrable on ethical grounds if enforcement were at all vigorous—but keeping those virtually certain to cause ethics problems out of the profession is a good start.

I say this not just because I vehemently disagree with Mr. Hale's views, but because his actions and contempt for judicial process that does not go in his favor are all too common, both within and without the bar. The legal system has done a really poor job over the years in "self-policing," yet will not allow outside influences to help it reform. I still believe, and still follow, the officer's code of conduct, and believe it to be the minimum that those of us entrusted with ensuring the equal enforcement of the law should be expected to uphold.

•  Thou shalt not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate others who do.

•  Any situation that presents even an appearance of a conflict of interest or of ethics must be treated as an actual conflict until a knowledgeable third party determines after adequate inquiry that no actual conflict exists and the party or parties potentially effected by the potential conflict have been informed.

Yes, everyone is entitled to vigorous representation. Nobody is entitled to subvert the rule of law through representation by counsel that has only contempt for the rule of law.