A Criminal Appeals Lawyer’s Foolish Client

by Rick Wetzel on March 4, 2011

An article in the American Bar Journal caught my attention this week.  It was about a law student who foolishly decided to be her own criminal appeals lawyer.

A fool for a client

The law student was ticketed for a traffic offense.  She represented herself at trial.  She then served as her own criminal appeals lawyer and argued she failed to provide herself the effective assistance of counsel at trial.

Not surprisingly, she lost her criminal appeal and when paying the fine, she included a note with two smiley faces.  The note read: “Keep the change—put into a police/judicial education fund. I can certainly say this has been an educational experience. I am now a second-year law student and can honestly relate to what a crooked and inequitable system of ‘justice’ we have.”

The Georgia Board to Determine Fitness of Bar Applicants learned of her actions and recommended she not be allowed to take the bar exam.  It cited the content of the note to the clerk along with a comment the student made during a Board interview that “every police officer lies.”  I’m sure her conduct would offend our courts if a Texas criminal appeals lawyer included a similar remark in a court document.

The student told the Board she was acquainted with the court clerk and considered the smiley face note to be “off the record.”  As to her comments about police officers, she told the Board she drew her conclusions about an inequitable justice system after reading the writings of Harvard Law School professor and criminal appeals lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who had written that every police officer lies.

The battle but not the war

The student, represented by counsel, fought her appeal with the Board for four years.  The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately found no evidence to support the Board’s conclusions the student was not fit to sit for the bar examination.  Although she has now been found eligible to sit for the bar exam in Georgia, she doubts she will take the exam and instead plans to pursue a career in nursing.  If she ultimately decides to take the bar exam, she may want to consider a practice area other than being a criminal appeals lawyer.

A criminal appeals lawyer faces many potential pitfalls in each case.  Those who undertake their own legal representation either on appeal or by habeas corpus frequently self-inflict their own fatal injuries.  I sometimes wonder if those who undertake their own legal representation in a criminal appellate matter would also perform surgery on themselves in the case of a burst appendix.

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