Cohen v. Hurley, 84

Decision Date24 April 1961
Docket NumberNo. 84,84
PartiesAlbert Martin COHEN, Petitioner, v. Denis M. HURLEY
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Theodore Kiendl, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Denis M. Hurley, Brooklyn, N.Y., for respondent.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are called upon to decide whether the State of New York may, consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment, disbar an attorney who, relying on his state privilege against self-incrimination, has refused to answer material questions of a duly authorized investigating authority relating to alleged professional misconduct.1 The issue arises in the context of the so-called Brooklyn 'ambulance chasing' Judicial Inquiry which this Court had before it in Anonymous Nos. 6 and 7 v. Baker, 360 U.S. 287, 79 S.Ct. 1157, 3 L.Ed.2d 1234. The origins, authority, and nature of the Inquiry have already been sufficiently described in our opinion in that case. There need only be added here that the purpose of the Inquiry, as reflected in the establishing order of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Second Department, was twofold: 'to expose all the evil practices (involved in the improper solicitation and handling of contingent-retainers in personal injury cases) with a view to enabling this court to adopt appropriate measures to eliminate them and to discipline those attorneys found to have engagedin them.' In re Cohen, 9 A.D.2d 436, 437, 195 N.Y.S.2d 990, 993.

For some years the Second Department has had a court rule 'which requires that an attorney who makes contingent-fee agreements for his services in personal injury, wrongful death, property damage, and certain other kinds of cases, must file such agreements with the (Appellate Division) and, if he enters into five or more such agreements in any year, must give to the court in writing certain particulars as to how he came to be retained' (called 'Statements ofRetainer'). 7 N.Y.2d 488, 493, 199 N.Y.S.2d 658, 660, 166 N.E.2d 672, 674, see Rule 3 of the Special Rules Regulating the Conduct of Attorneys and Counselors at Law in the Second Judicial Department, Clevenger's Practice Manual, p. 21—19 (1959). Principally as a result of the large number of Statements of Retainer filed by him during recent years, petitioner was called to testify and produce records before the Justice in charge of the Inquiry.2 Relying on his con- cededly available state privilege against self-incrimination, petitioner refused to produce the records called for and to answer some sixty other questions. The subject matter of such questions was summarized by the New York Court of Appeals in its opinion in this case (7 N.Y.2d 488, 494, 199 N.Y.S.2d 658, 661, 166 N.E.2d 672, 674—675), as follows:

'* * * Those unanswered questions related to the identity of his law office partners, associates and employees, to his possession of the records of the cases described in his statements of retainer, to any destruction of such records, to his bank accounts, to his paying police officers or othes for referring claimants to him, to his paying insurance company employees for referring cases to him, and to his promising to pay to any 'lay person' 10% of recoveries or settlements. He was asked—and refused to answer—as to whether he had made or agreed to make such payments to any of several named persons, as to whether he had hired or paid nonlawyers to arrange settlements of his cases with insurance companies and as to whether his partner or associate Rothenberg had been indicted for and had pleaded guilty to violations of sections 270—a and 270—d of the Penal Law, Consol.Laws, c. 40, which forbid the solicitation of legal business or the employment by lawyers of such solicitors. * * *'

After petitioner had refused to answer these questions, counsel for the Inquiry warned him that 'serious consequences,' in the form of an exercise of the Appellate Division's disciplinary power over attorneys practicing before it,3 might flow from his refusal to respond, even though that refusal was based on a claim of privilege. As the basis for his warning counsel referred to various provisions of the Canons of Professional Ethics4 and of the New York Penal Law.5 Petitioner was then given a further opportunity to respond to the unanswered questions, but he declined, preferring to rely upon his claim of privilege.

Thereafter the Justice in charge of the Inquiry recommended to the Appellate Division that petitioner be disciplined. The Appellate Division ordered respondent Hurley to file a petition for disciplinary action. The ensuing petition sought petitioner's disbarment, alleging as grounds therefor:

'The refusal of * * * Albert Martin Cohen, to produce the records (called for by the Inquiry), and his refusal to answer the questions (summarized above), are in disregard and in violation of the inherent duty and obligation of respondent as a member of the legal profession in that, among other things, such refusals are contrary to the standards of candor and frankness that are required and expected of a lawyer to the Court; such refusals are in definance of and flaunt (sic) the authority of the Court to inquire into and elicit information within respondent's knowledge relating to this conduct and practices as a lawyer; by his refusal to answer the aforesaid questions the respondent hindered and impeded the Judicial Inquiry that was ordered by this Court; by his refusals respondent withheld vital information bearing upon his conduct, character, fitness, integrity, trust and reliability as a member of the legal profession. * * *'

The Appellate Division ordered petitioner disbarred, saying (9 A.D.2d at pages 448-449, 195 N.Y.S.2d at page 1003):

'To avoid any possible doubt as to our position, we state again that the basis for any disciplinary action by this court is, not the fact that respondent has invoked his constitutional privilege against self incrimination, but rather the fact that he has deliberately refused to co-operate with the court in its efforts to expose unethical practices and in its efforts to determine incidentially whether he had committed any acts of professional misconduct which destroyed the character and fitness required of him as a condition to his retention of the privilege of remaining a member of the Bar.'

The New York Court of Appeals affirmed, Judge Fuld dissenting.6 7 N.Y.2d 488, 199 N.Y.S.2d 658, 166 N.E.2d 672. We granted certiorari because the case presented still another variant of the issues arising in the Konigsberg, Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S. 36, 81 S.Ct. 997, 6 L.Ed.2d 105, and Anastaplo, In re Anastaplo, 366 U.S. 82, 81 S.Ct. 978, 6 L.Ed.2d 135, cases.

Starting from the undeniably correct premise that a State may not arbitrarily refuse a person permission to practice law, Konigsberg v. State Bar of California, 353 U.S. 252, 77 S.Ct. 722, 1 L.Ed.2d 810; Schware v. Board of Bar Examiners, 353 U.S. 232, 77 S.Ct. 752, 1 L.Ed.2d 796, petitioner's claim that New York's disbarment of him was capricious rests essentially on two propositions: (1) that the Fourteenth Amendment forbade the State from making his refusal to answer the Inquiry's questions a per se ground for disbarment; (2) that in any event such a ground is not permissible when refusal to answer rests on a bona fide claim of a privilege against self-incrimination.


The first contention must be rejected largely in light of our today's opinions in the Konigsberg and Anastaplo cases. The fact that such refusal was here made a ground for disbarment, rather than for denial of admission to the barAs in Konigsberg and Anastaplo, is not of constitutional moment. And there is no claim here either that the unanswered questions were not material or that petitioner was not duly warned of the consequences of his refusal to answer. By the same token those cases also dispose of petitioner's basically similar contention that the State could proceed against him only by way of independent evidence of wrongdoing on his part.

We do not think it can be seriously contended that New York's judicial inquiry was so devoid of rational justification that the mere act of compelling even unprivileged testimony was a deprivation of petitioner's liberty without due process. History and policy combine to establish the presence of a substantial state interest in conducting an investigation of this kind. That interest is nothing less than the exertion of disciplinary powers which English and American courts (the former primarily through the Inns of Court) have for centuries possessed over members of the bar, incident to their broader responsibility for keeping the administration of justice and the standards of professional conduct unsullied. Not only is the practice of such judicial investigations long-established, but the subject matter of the present investigation does not lack a rational basis. It is no less true than trite that lawyers must operate in a three-fold capacity, as self-employed businessmen as it were, as trusted agents of their clients, and as assistants to the court in search of a just solution to disputes. It is certainly not beyond the realm of permissible state concerns to conclude that too muchattention to the business of getting clients may be incompatible with a sufficient devotion to duties which a lawyer owes to the court, or that the 'payment of awards to persons bringing in legal business' is inconsistent with the personally disinterested position a lawyer should maintain.

Finally, it cannot by any stretch be considered that New York acted arbitrarily or irrationally in applying the disciplinary sanction of disbarment to the petitioner. What Mr. Justice Cardozo (then Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals) said in the Karlin case, People ex rel. Karlin v. Culkin, is enough to put an end to that contention:

'If a barrister was suspected of misconduct, the benchers of his inn...

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