Despite the strong public interest in effectively regulating lawyers, neither state nor federal courts have developed adequate policies and practices to ensure that lawyers’ misconduct during litigation proceedings is consistently reported to state disciplinary agencies. The reasons for this inconsistency—and the extent to which it should be considered an actual inadequacy and a problem calling for a rule-based solution—have been the subject of active scholarly discussion and debate. In practical terms, however, one contributing factor may be the inherent inefficiencies involved with the current reporting system. These inefficiencies in the judicial reporting process can be substantially mitigated—and regular reporting thereby supported—through the effective use of electronic database technology. For many years now, courts throughout the United States have been using computer and electronic technology, with its continually accelerating capabilities, to improve their processes for receiving, storing and transmitting judicial filings and records. This so-far successful experience with electronic filing and records creates an opportunity for courts to extend these technological breakthroughs to provide logistical support to a much improved system for judicial reporting of lawyermisconduct.
To accomplish this objective, this Article proposes that state and federal court systems create electronic databases, accompanied and supported by uniform court procedural rules and policies, to receive and store judicial reports of litigation-related lawyer misconduct. These databases should be accessible to and searchable by state disciplinary agencies using universal licensing numbers assigned to individual lawyers. To set the stage for this proposal, Part I will examine the history and scope of the ethical code of conduct obligations of state and federal judges to report lawyer misconduct to an appropriate disciplinary authority, as well as reporting pursuant to procedural rules governing civil litigation. Part II will critique the adequacy of the judicial response to these existing reporting provisions, and consider the adverse potential consequences that underreporting may pose to the public interest and to the traditional judicial prerogatives in regulating the practice of law.
Turning to the specifics of the proposed reforms, Part III will recommend how state and federal electronic databases accessible to and searchable by state disciplinary agencies should be organized and structured, and explain the criteria courts should use in deciding when a report is appropriate and how it should be categorized within the databases. Finally, Part IV will offer responses to several procedural questions relating to the implementation of these new reporting systems and databases.
Michael S. McGinniss, University of North Dakota School of Law