On June 23, the Maryland Judiciary’s Committee on Equal Justice held a listening session during which it discussed Admission to the Bar and Ethics. Specifically, the Committee sought public input to identify any concerns for fairness in the language or application of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct, particularly those dealing with ethics and admission to the bar. The session was moderated by Judge Pamela J. White of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, and Marilyn Bentley, the Court Clerk. Each person voicing concerns was granted two minutes to speak.
Judge White began by noting that the lawyers’ oath on admission to the Maryland bar commits attorneys to act fairly and honorably, and that attorney applicants to the bar must prove their good moral character and fitness for the practice of law. It is professional misconduct for attorneys to knowingly manifest bias or prejudice based upon race sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status when such action is prejudicial to the administration of justice. Additionally, judges are barred from manifesting such prejudice or bias in the performance of their judicial duties and must require attorneys in proceedings before the court to refrain from such conduct.
The Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct are written primarily for lawyers, and they are supposed to be applied to accomplish fairness in the administration of justice. Questions may arise, however, as to whether the rules as applied will affect fairness in court proceedings. Thus, the Equal Justice committee wanted to know if the ethics and bar admission rules governing the behavior of lawyers and judges may provoke discriminatory prejudice in our courts in our court proceedings.
The first speaker from the audience commented on ex parte communications. She noted many judges discuss cases with others and read external sources such as newspapers, and opined there should be better enforcement of the rule against ex parte communications and the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct should be re-written to deter this behavior because it can result in biases that impact the outcome of cases. Secondly, she stated that judges should be better equipped to assess unconscious bias, noting that many lack an understanding of racial caste systems and institutionalized systemic and structural racism.
The second speaker noted concerns with the Rule on reinstatement of attorneys to the bar. He described situations where attorneys were denied the opportunity to respond to allegations resulting in their petitions for reinstatement being rejected, and where minority attorneys were asked to provide information outside of what is considered relevant pursuant to the Rules in order to be considered for reinstatement. He believed the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission should be required to show good cause for a delay in their response and should fully disclose its grounds for denying a petition.
The speaker that followed focused on gender discrimination in the administration of the bar exam; specifically, practices that result in the mistreatment of menstruating test takers. She argued that the lack of policies and practices addressing the reality of menstruating test takers is discriminatory under the Constitution and under certain States’ human rights laws and she hoped that the Maryland bar exam and the court will reform policies to treat menstruating test takers with greater dignity and avoid policies that burden their entry into the profession on the basis of gender.
The speaker referred Judge White to her law review article that detailed the policies she believed should be adopted, noting bar examiners are able to address menstruators needs without compromising the bar, and a model policy that considered ways to maintain security and integrity while treating menstruating test takers with the dignity that they deserve. She advised she would submit the article and policy to Judge White.
Next, a speaker expressed concerns with the diversity of membership and education of the character committee of the Maryland Bar. He noted he passed the Maryland bar exam 13 years ago but was ultimately not admitted to the bar after an unfavorable experience with the committee, which did not deny him but recommended that he withdraw his application. He was later admitted to the D.C. bar without issue. As a minority and first-generation immigrant, he had no peers or advocates on the committee and recommended that a person be placed on the committee solely to advocate for the applicant.
Multiple speakers offered stories supporting the argument that the process of investigating and handling attorney grievances results in the unjust treatment of solo practitioners, particularly those that are minorities. They requested reform of the rules pertaining to such matters, and perhaps the institution of a mentorship program for solo practitioners.
Additional Listening Series programs will be held on upcoming Monday and Wednesday evenings, and parties interested in participating should email firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain a Zoom link.