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There's zealous advocacy on behalf of a client and then there's harnessing the power of the Internet to influence a legal proceeding. The first? Fine. The second -- well, it could get you in trouble, as the case of Joyce McCool makes clear. McCool, a Louisiana lawyer, has been disbarred after using social media in an attempt to influence a case. Not fined or suspended -- disbarred.
McCool lost her license to practice after she took to Twitter and a Change.org petition in order to influence the outcome of a friend's custody battle. The lawyer's Internet activism was a bit too much for the Louisiana Supreme Court, who chose disbarment over the disciplinary board's recommended year suspension.
Advocacy, Activism, Ethical Breaches
Plenty of lawyers balance legal advocacy and political activism. A public interest lawyer might rally the public against fracking while suing to stop a drilling permit, for example. Usually, though, public pressure and litigation are separate spheres. In McCool's case, the two merged, with the judges becoming the target of her activism.
McCool's disbarment stems from her involvement in a friend's divorce and custody battle. After Raven Maurer divorced her husband, she accused him of sexually abusing their two daughters. While Maurer sought sole custody in Mississippi, McCool represented Maurer's new husband in a Louisiana petition to adopt the girls.
McCool wasn't Maurer's lawyer in the custody dispute, but she was heavily involved. She created several Change.org petitions regarding jurisdiction, guardians ad litem, and admissibility of evidence -- perhaps forgetting that lawyers typically use motions to influence a proceeding, not Change.org petitions. She disseminated these over Twitter and urged others to contact the judges directly.
Ethics Breach, Not Free Speech
When she was brought up for discipline, McCool claimed that her actions were protected by the First Amendment. After all, what does free speech protect if not the right to speak out against perceived injustice?
Of course, when it comes to the courtroom, a lawyer's free speech rights are "extremely circumscribed," as the Supreme Court has noted. As the Louisiana Supreme Court noted, the traditional method for challenging a judge's ruling as a lawyer is the writ and appeal process, "not by starting a social media blitz" followed by "claiming immunity from discipline through the First Amendment."
So lawyers, take note -- when a ruling doesn't go your way, consider using the power of the appellate courts, not the Internet hordes, to redress the wrong.