U.S. v. Hobson

Decision Date24 March 1982
Docket NumberNo. 82-5138,82-5138
Citation672 F.2d 825
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Russell HOBSON, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Clyde M. Taylor, Jr., Tallahassee, Fla., for defendant-appellee.

Nicholas P. Geeker, U. S. Atty., Pensacola, Fla., Kevin M. Moore, Asst. U. S. Atty., Tallahassee, Fla., for plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

Before RONEY, KRAVITCH and CLARK, Circuit Judges.


The defendant Hobson appeals from an order of the district court that disqualifies one of his attorneys from representing him in his trial scheduled to begin on March 8, 1982. Hobson is charged with violating federal laws pertaining to drug trafficking. Hobson moved that this appeal be expedited, that proceedings in the district court be stayed pending appeal, and requested oral argument. We granted the motion to expedite and the request for oral argument, but denied the motion to stay the proceedings in the district court pending appeal. We now affirm the order of the district court.

The trial court's disqualification order dated January 20, 1982, is based factually upon affidavits of two witnesses, Robinson and Alexander, whom the government represents will testify in Hobson's upcoming trial. The affidavit of Robinson states that, while he was at Hobson's attorney's office for a conference with respect to a pending case that the attorney was handling for Robinson, he "discussed with (the attorney) about (the attorney) getting in touch with Tom Alexander for the purpose of getting me work unloading marijuana. (The attorney) indicated that he would contact Alexander." The affidavit further states that, during Robinson's conversation with the attorney, Alexander came to the attorney's office.

The affidavits of Robinson and Alexander both reflect that while in the attorney's office they discussed the possibility that Robinson might assist in off-loading marijuana from a Constellation airplane in the near future. Both affidavits indicate that the attorney was in and out of his office while Robinson and Alexander discussed this future unloading, and Alexander's affidavit indicates that he is reasonably sure that the attorney had full knowledge of the context of this conversation. Alexander further states in his affidavit that Robinson and he were talking about a Constellation aircraft that was later apprehended at the Panama City airport in February 1979. A review of the indictment in this case discloses that defendant Hobson is alleged to have been one of the co-conspirators in the commission of this unlawful importation of marijuana, for which Hobson had paid one and a half million dollars.

The district court concluded that in the trial scheduled March 8, 1982, in which Hobson is one of the defendants, evidence of Hobson's attorney's alleged knowledge of some of the criminal activity that is the subject matter of this criminal case may be offered and, if so, would create a reasonable possibility of an appearance of an impropriety on the attorney's part. Further, the district court found that such evidence would bring before the jury an issue of the attorney's credibility which would operate to Hobson's detriment. Therefore, the district court disqualified the attorney from representing Hobson, relying upon Canon 9 of Florida's Code of Professional Responsibility, which has been adopted by the Northern District of Florida in its Rule 5(F). Hobson then brought this interlocutory appeal from the disqualification order.

A district court order disqualifying counsel is a "final order" appealable under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Cossette v. Country Style Donuts, Inc., 647 F.2d 526, 529 n.2 (5th Cir. 1981); Woods v. Covington County Bank, 537 F.2d 804, 809 (5th Cir. 1976). The standard of review to be applied in such appeals, however, is unclear. Finding that no Eleventh Circuit case has addressed this standard of review issue, we sought guidance from the cases of our predecessor, the former Fifth Circuit. Examination of the Fifth Circuit cases, however, revealed no consistent line of authority. Instead, we found support for two distinct approaches to the standard of review issue.

In In re Gopman, 531 F.2d 262 (5th Cir. 1976), the court held that an order disqualifying counsel could be reversed only upon a showing of "abuse of discretion" by the district court. The court reasoned that disqualification orders are issued pursuant to the district court's inherent authority to take measures against unethical conduct occurring in connection with proceedings before it, and that this supervisory authority may be exercised within the sound discretion of the district court. Id. at 266.

One month after Gopman was decided, another panel of the Fifth Circuit decided Woods v. Covington County Bank, 537 F.2d 804 (5th Cir. 1976). In Woods, the court acknowledged that some courts had applied the "abuse of discretion" standard in reviewing disqualification orders, citing several cases including Gopman. 537 F.2d at 810 & n.7. The court noted, however, that "serious reservations" had been expressed by courts "about whether the scope of appellate review is limited to a finding of abuse of discretion in disqualification cases where only a purely legal question is at issue." 537 F.2d at 810. The court then declared:

In disqualification cases such as this, where the facts are not in dispute, District Courts enjoy no particular functional advantage over appellate courts in their formulation and application of ethical norms. Thus, in this circuit, we have reviewed disqualification cases as we would most other appeals of a judge's findings, applying the "clearly erroneous" test to issues of fact while carefully examining a District Judge's application of relevant ethical standards. See, e.g., American Can Co. v. Citrus Feed Co., 5 Cir., 1971, 436 F.2d 1125 (disqualification order reversed because contrary to controlling ethical principles); Uniweld Products, Inc. v. Union Carbide Corp., 5 Cir., 1967, 385 F.2d 992, cert. denied, 390 U.S. 921, 88 S.Ct. 853, 19 L.Ed.2d 980 (1968) (refusal to disqualify upheld because factual determination not clearly erroneous). Consequently, we are empowered in this case to determine whether the District Court's disqualification order was predicated upon a proper understanding of applicable ethical principles.

537 F.2d at 810.

This conflict has resurfaced recently. In Brennan's Inc. v. Brennan's Restaurants, Inc., 590 F.2d 168 (5th Cir. 1979), the court adopted the Woods standard. Id. at 171. Just one year later, in United States v. Salinas, 618 F.2d 1092, 1093 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 961, 101 S.Ct. 374, 66 L.Ed.2d 228 (1980), the court followed Gopman and applied the "abuse of discretion" standard. Only several months ago, however, the court decided Cossette v. Country Style Donuts, Inc., 647 F.2d 526, 530 (5th Cir. 1981), in which the Woods approach once again was followed.

We thus are faced with conflicting authority within the body of precedent by which we are bound. When confronted with conflicting precedent, we ordinarily reject the precedent that is inconsistent with either Supreme Court cases or the weight of authority within the circuit. Gresham Park Community Organization v. Howell, 652 F.2d 1227, 1235 (5th Cir. 1981). This approach is not helpful here, however, because we are aware of no Supreme Court authority on the issue and there is no clear weight of authority within the circuit. Therefore, we must resort to common sense and reason to determine the appropriate standard of review in this case.

We believe that in criminal cases, where the defendant's sixth amendment right to counsel is implicated, the conflict in our prior cases should be resolved in favor of the accused. The "abuse of discretion" standard is simply too deferential where such a fundamental constitutional right is affected. Although we recognize that the criminal defendant's right to particular counsel is not absolute, see, e.g., United States v. Silva, 611 F.2d 78, 79 (5th Cir. 1980); United States v. Kitchin, 592 F.2d 900, 903 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 843, 100 S.Ct. 86, 62 L.Ed.2d 56 (1979); Gandy v. State of Alabama, 569 F.2d 1318 1323 (5th Cir. 1978); United States v. Dinitz, 538 F.2d 1214, 1219 (5th Cir. 1976) (en banc), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1104, 97 S.Ct. 1133, 51 L.Ed.2d 556 (1977), the right should be deprived only where such drastic action is necessary to further some overriding social or ethical interest. We find the Woods approach more appropriate in the criminal context because it provides a higher degree of protection for this right. Thus, we choose to review the challenged disqualification order as we would most other final orders of a district court, "applying the 'clearly erroneous' test to issues of fact while carefully examining a District Judge's application of relevant ethical standards." Woods, 537 F.2d at 810.

The findings of fact upon which the disqualification order was based are not clearly erroneous. Thus, we must examine the ethical standard, Canon 9, which the district court applied.

Canon 9 provides: "A lawyer should avoid even the appearance of professional impropriety." The purpose of Canon 9 is to preserve public confidence in the bar and in the legal process. This confidence "may be eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct of a lawyer." A.B.A. Code of Professional Responsibility EC 9-2. Because some conduct that is ethical in fact may be perceived by laypersons as unethical, members of the bar are held by Canon 9 to a standard that prohibits not only actual impropriety, but conduct that may simply appear to be improper. Thus, attorneys have been disqualified under the appearance of impropriety doctrine even where there was no evidence of actual wrongdoing. Woods v. Covington County Bank, 537 F.2d 804, 813 (5th Cir. 1976) (citing General...

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