Posted: May 8, 2007
MAKING RICH ABBOTT PUT THE "COURT" IN "COURTESY"
By Celia Cohen
Richard L. Abbott was certainly smart enough to get through law school, but somehow it never sunk in that the courts meant it when they wanted lawyers to regard judges as "Your Honor."
It may now.
Abbott, long known for his smack-down approach to law and politics, was disciplined last week with a public reprimand from the Delaware Supreme Court for insulting a judge in what was otherwise a pedestrian case about building code violations.
Abbott, a Hockessin lawyer with a put-up-your-dukes attitude, has sued over everything from Wal-Mart to a tree in his neighborhood, usually loudly. He also had a noisy tenure as a New Castle County Republican councilman, although he is remembered more for his departure -- losing a 2002 race that became part of the interminable federal case against Thomas P. Gordon and Sherry L. Freebery, the former Democratic county officials.
It should come as no surprise that Rich Abbott would not mind taking on the entire judicial establishment. He warmed up about four years ago against Chancellor William B. Chandler III after losing a lawsuit against Wal-Mart and tartly remarking that the judge had caved to state officials backing the giant retailer.
"Whatever Wal-Mart wants, Wal-Mart gets," Abbott sniped. It landed him for a while on the legal disciplinary system's version of double-secret probation, never to be revealed but impossible to keep quiet in a small and gossipy place like Delaware.
This time the penalty was escalated. Abbott was reprimanded publicly for suggesting that Superior Court Judge Jan R. Jurden did not have the integrity to rule fairly in his building-code case against New Castle County and for undermining judicial decorum by filing an overly sarcastic legal brief.
In one outlandish passage in the brief, Abbott knocked a county board composed of citizen members who had ruled against his client. He wrote: "A citizen board does not mean that its members are given license to ignore the legal standards which govern their decisions. Otherwise the county would be permitted to appoint a group of monkeys . . . and simply allow the [county] attorney to interpret the grunts and groans of the ape members."
Jurden made Abbott rewrite his brief, but she also shipped off the offending one as a possible ethics violation to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the arm of the Supreme Court responsible for policing lawyers' conduct.
All five Supreme Court justices weighed in. Customarily three justices will do in a disciplinary matter, so there is probably a message here, a united front of judges taking issue with disrespect toward another judge.
It seems like something a lawyer should have seen coming.
The Supreme Court dumped three-plus centuries of legal civility on Abbott. It invoked the revered memory of Thomas Spry, the first Delaware lawyer, and the quaint, Colonial English way he was admitted to the bar in 1676 with a caveat of how he should conduct himself. Back then, a court was even more than "honorable." It was:
"The worshipful Court have granted [Spry] leave so long as the Petitioner Behaves himself well and Carrys himself answerable thereunto."
Abbott fought being disciplined, although his method probably did nothing to help his cause. He tried to subpoena Judge Jurden.
Even worse, Abbott attributed to Jurden all sorts of possible motivations having nothing to do with the merits of his case -- a fondness for media attention, career advancement or even misguided loyalty to her former law firm, because it has lucrative contracts with the county.
The Supreme Court let Abbott have it. "Disparaging a court's integrity [is] unacceptable by any standard," the justices wrote in their reprimand. "Zealous advocacy never requires disruptive, degrading or disparaging rhetoric. The use of such rhetoric crosses the line from acceptable forceful advocacy into unethical conduct."
Naturally Abbott did not think he deserved to be disciplined. In a fax to Delaware Grapevine, he wrote that the court overrode his "free speech rights to criticize government" and that he crossed no line because his language was never profane or vulgar.
Abbott lamented that he was a victim of "subjective political-correctness feelings, not ethics."
Maybe the court would have gotten through to him if it had worded its reprimand Abbott-style -- "Free speech rights do not mean that a lawyer is given license to ignore the legal standards which govern him. Otherwise, he could be permitted to act like a monkey and revile the judges with grunts and groans like ape members of the bar."