457 U.S. 423 (1982), 81-460, Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Association

Docket Nº:No. 81-460
Citation:457 U.S. 423, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed.2d 116
Party Name:Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Association
Case Date:June 21, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 423

457 U.S. 423 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed.2d 116

Middlesex County Ethics Committee

v.

Garden State Bar Association

No. 81-460

United States Supreme Court

June 21, 1982

Argued March 31, 1982

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Under rules promulgated by the New Jersey Supreme Court pursuant to its authority under the State Constitution to license and discipline attorneys admitted to practice in the State, a claim of unethical conduct by an attorney is first considered by a local District Ethics Committee appointed by the Supreme Court. If a complaint is issued, the attorney whose conduct is challenged is served with the complaint and has 10 days to answer. Upon a determination that a prima facie case of unethical conduct exists, a formal hearing is held. The [102 S.Ct. 2517] attorney charged may have counsel, discovery is available, and all witnesses are sworn. The Committee may ultimately dismiss the complaint, issue a private letter of reprimand, or forward a presentment to the statewide Disciplinary Review Board, which is also appointed by the Supreme Court. After a de novo review, the Board is required to make formal findings and recommendations to the Supreme Court, which reviews all decisions beyond a private reprimand and which permits briefing and oral argument for cases involving disbarment or suspension for more than one year. Respondent Hinds, a member of the New Jersey Bar, was served by petitioner, a local Ethics Committee, with a formal statement of charges of violating certain Supreme Court disciplinary rules. Instead of filing an answer to the charges, Hinds and the three respondent organizations of lawyers filed suit in Federal District Court, contending that the disciplinary rules violated their rights under the Federal Constitution. The court dismissed the complaint on the basis of the abstention principles of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37. The Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that the disciplinary proceedings did not provide a meaningful opportunity to adjudicate constitutional claims, notwithstanding an affidavit stating that the New Jersey Supreme Court would directly consider Hinds' constitutional challenges and would consider whether such a procedure should be made explicit in the Supreme Court rules.

Held: The federal courts should abstain from interfering with the ongoing disciplinary proceedings within the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Pp. 431-437.

(a) The policies underlying Younger are fully applicable to noncriminal judicial proceedings when important state interests are involved.

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Where such interests are involved, a federal court should abstain unless state law clearly bars the interposition of the constitutional claims. The pertinent inquiry is whether the state proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise the constitutional claims. Pp. 431-432.

(b) The New Jersey Supreme Court considers its disciplinary proceedings, beginning with the filing of a complaint with the local Ethics Committee, as "judicial in nature." As such, the proceedings are of a character to warrant federal court deference. Pp. 432-434.

(c) The State has an extremely important interest in maintaining and assuring the professional conduct of the attorneys it licenses. The State's interest in the present litigation is demonstrated by the fact that petitioner, an agency of the New Jersey Supreme Court, is the named defendant in the present suit and was the body which initiated the state proceedings against Hinds. The importance of the state interest in the pending state judicial proceedings and in the federal case calls Younger abstention into play. Pp. 434-435.

(d) In light of the unique relationship between the New Jersey Supreme Court and the local Ethics Committee, and in view of the nature of the proceedings, it cannot be concluded that there was no "adequate opportunity" for Hinds to raise his constitutional claims. Any doubt as to this matter was laid to rest by the New Jersey Supreme Court's subsequent actions when, prior to the filing of the petition for certiorari in this Court, it sua sponte entertained the constitutional issues raised by Hinds. And there is no reason to disturb the District Court's unchallenged findings that there was no bad faith or harassment on petitioner's part and that the state disciplinary rules were not "flagrantly and patently" unconstitutional. Nor have any other extraordinary circumstances been presented to indicate that abstention would not be appropriate. Pp. 435-437.

643 F.2d 119 and 651 F.2d 154, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 438. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 438.

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BURGER, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to determine whether a federal court should abstain from considering a challenge to the constitutionality of disciplinary rules that are the subject of pending state disciplinary proceedings within the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Supreme Court. 454 U.S. 962 (1981). The Court of Appeals held that it need not abstain under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). We reverse.

I

A

The Constitution of New Jersey charges the State Supreme Court with the responsibility for licensing and disciplining attorneys admitted to practice in the State. Art. 6, § 2, 3.1 Under the rules established by the New Jersey Supreme Court, promulgated pursuant to its constitutional authority, a complaint moves through a three-tier procedure. First, local District Ethics Committees appointed by the

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State Supreme Court are authorized to receive complaints relating to claimed unethical conduct by an attorney. New Jersey Court Rule 1:20-2(d). At least two of the minimum of eight members of the District Ethics Committee must be nonattorneys. Complaints are assigned to an attorney member of the Committee to report and make a recommendation. Rule 1:20-2(h). The decision whether to proceed with the complaint is made by the person who chairs the Ethics Committee. If a complaint is issued by the Ethics Committee, it must state the name of the complainant, describe the claimed improper conduct, cite the relevant rules, and state, if known, whether the same or a similar complaint has been considered by any other Ethics Committee. The attorney whose conduct is challenged is served with the complaint and has 10 days to answer.2

Unless good cause appears for referring the complaint to another Committee member, each complaint is referred to the member of the Committee who conducted the initial investigation for review and further investigation, if necessary. The Committee member submits a written report stating whether a prima facie indication of unethical or unprofessional conduct has been demonstrated. The report is then evaluated by the chairman of the Ethics Committee to determine whether a prima facie case exists. Absent a prima facie showing, the complaint is summarily dismissed. If a prima facie case is found, a formal hearing on the complaint is held before three or more members of the Ethics Committee,

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a majority of whom must be attorneys. The lawyer who is charged with unethical conduct may have counsel, discovery i available, and all witnesses are sworn. The panel is required to prepare a written report with its findings of fact and conclusions. The full Committee, following the decision of the panel, has three alternatives. The Committee may dismiss the complaint, prepare a private letter of reprimand, or prepare a presentment to be forwarded [102 S.Ct. 2519] to the Disciplinary Review Board. Rule 1:20-2(o).3

The Disciplinary Review Board, a statewide board which is also appointed by the Supreme Court, consists of nine members, at least five of whom must be attorneys and at least three of whom must be nonattorneys. The Board makes a de novo review. Rule 1:20-3(d)(3).4 The Board is required to make formal findings and recommendations to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

All decisions of the Disciplinary Review Board beyond a private reprimand are reviewed by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Briefing and oral argument are available in the Supreme court for cases involving disbarment or suspension for more than one year. Rule 1:20-4.

B

Respondent Lennox Hinds, a member of the New Jersey Bar, served as executive director of the national Conference of Black Lawyers at the time of his challenged conduct. Hinds represented Joanne Chesimard in a civil proceeding challenging her conditions of confinement in jail. In 1977,

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Chesimard went to trial in state court for the murder of a policeman. Respondent Hinds was not a counsel of record for Chesimard in the murder case. However, at the outset of the criminal trial, Hinds took part in a press conference, making statements critical of the trial and of the trial judge's judicial temperament and racial insensitivity. In particular, Hinds referred to the criminal trial as "a travesty," a "legalized lynching," and "a kangaroo court."

One member of the Middlesex County Ethics Committee read news accounts of Hinds' comments and brought the matter to the attention of the Committee. In February, 1977, the Committee directed one of its members to conduct an investigation. A letter was written to Hinds, who...

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