In re Ruffalo/Concurrence Harlan

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion

United States Supreme Court

390 U.S. 544

In re Ruffalo

 Argued: March 4, 1968. --- Decided: April 8, 1968

Mr. Justice HARLAN, concurring in the result.

I see no need to decide whether the notice given petitioner of the charge that formed the basis of his subsequent federal disbarment was adequate to afford him constitutional due process in the state proceedings. For 1 think that Theard v. United States, 354 U.S. 278, 77 S.Ct. 1274, 1 L.Ed.2d 1342, leaves us free to hold, as I would, that such notice should not be accepted as adequate for the purposes of disbarment from a federal court. On that basis, I concur in the judgment of the Court.

Mr. Justice WHITE, with whom Mr. Justice MARSHALL joins, concurring in the result.

The Court reverses petitioner's disbarment by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit because petitioner had inadequate notice prior to his earlier state disbarment proceeding of the charges which the Mahoning County Bar Association was bringing against him at that proceeding. The state disbarment, however, is not before us. We denied a petition for certiorari seeking review of it. Ruffalo v. Mahoning County Bar Ass'n, 379 U.S. 931, 85 S.Ct. 328, 13 L.Ed.2d 342 (1964). Our writ in the instant case extends only to petitioner's disbarment by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The question therefore is whether the defective notice in petitioner's state disbarment proceeding so infected that federal proceeding that justice requires reversal of the federal determination.

In answering that question we must inquire into the nature of the proceeding that took place in the Court of Appeals. That court was obligated to determine for itself the facts of the attorney's conduct and whether that conduct had been so grievous as to require disbarment. Theard v. United States, 354 U.S. 278, 77 S.Ct. 1274, 1 L.Ed.2d 1342 (1957). The Court of Appeals asked petitioner to 'show cause if any he has * * * why he should not be stricken from the roll of counsel of this Court.' In response to that order petitioner filed a response and brief. The Ohio State Bar Association filed a brief also, urging petitioner's disbarment. The cause was argued orally to a panel of the Court of Appeals.

In his brief and oral argument, petitioner did not take issue with the determinations of fact that had been made by the Ohio Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals gave petitioner a full opportunity to assert that the state court had not accurately determined the facts of his conduct-and to assert, had he wished to do so, that the late point at which he learned that employing car inspector Orlando would be one ground for disbarment had prejudiced the factual record formed in the state court. Petitioner, not disputing the lower court's factual conclusions, made no such objection. [1] Instead petitioner's response in the Court of Appeals was that the agreed facts of his conduct were not a sufficient basis for disbarment. In reaching its conclusion on that question the Court of Appeals property gave weight to the views of the state court judges who had passed on the issue. Petitioner, however, had full and fair opportunity to put to the Court of Appeals his contrary view. I must therefore conclude that no procedural defect supports reversal of the decision of the Court of Appeals, and that the asserted defect relied upon by the Court, since not raised by petitioner below or here, is not properly before us. I am therefore constrained to deal with the central questions posed by this case, whether it was proper for the Court of Appeals, in making the independent determination of petitioner's fitness to remain a member of its bar mandated by Theard v. United States, supra, to disbar petitioner for having hired an employee of the B. & O. Railroad to investigate facts relevant to damage suits against the railroad brought by other employees who had retained petitioner to represent them. We must determine whether the Court of Appeals satisfied its duty 'not to disbar except upon the conviction that, under the principles of right and justice, (it is) constrained so to do.' Selling v. Radford, 243 U.S. 46, 51, 37 S.Ct. 377, 379, 61 L.Ed. 585 (1917).

A relevant inquiry in appraising a decision to disbar is whether the attorney stricken from the rolls can be deemed to have been on notice that the courts would condemn the conduct for which he was removed. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had provided petitioner and the other members of its bar with a general standard for disbarment:

'When it is shown to the court that any member of its bar has been suspended or disbarred from practice in any other court of record, or has been guilty of conduct unbecoming a member of the bar of the court, the member will be forthwith suspended from practice before the court and notice of his suspension will be mailed to him, and unless he shows good cause to the contrary within 40 days thereafter, he will be further suspended or disbarred from practice before the court.' Rule 6(3), Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. [2]

Even when a disbarment standard is as unspecific as the one before us, members of a bar can be assumed to know that certain kinds of conduct, generally condemned by responsible men, will be grounds for disbarment. This class of conduct certainly includes the criminal offenses traditionally known as malum in se. It also includes conduct which all responsible attorneys would recognize as improper for a member of the profession.

The conduct for which the Court of Appeals disbarred petitioner cannot, how, ever, be so characterized. Some responsible attorneys, like the judge who refused to order petitioner disbarred from practice in the Northern District of Ohio, 249 F.Supp. 432 (1965), would undoubtedly find no impropriety at all in hiring a railroad worker, a man with the knowledge and experience to select relevant information and appraise relevant facts, to 'moonlight'-work on his own time collecting data. On the other hand some, like the officials of the Mahoning County and Ohio State Bar Associations, would believe that encouraging a man to do work arguably at odds with his chief employer's interests is unethical. The appraisal of petitioner's conduct is one about which reasonable men differ, not one immediately apparent to any scrupulous citizen who confronts the question. [3] I would hold that a federal court may not deprive an attorney of the opportunity to practice his profession on the basis of a determination after the fact that conduct is unethical if responsible attorneys would differ in appraising the propriety of that conduct. I express no opinion about whether the Court of Appeals, as part of a code of specific rules for the members of its bar, could proscribe the conduct for which petitioner was disbarred.


^1  Indeed, petitioner did not suggest to this Court, as a reason for reversal, that he had learned of the ground for disbarment too late in the state court proceeding.

^2  The Court of Appeals did not apply its rule literally: 'We should preliminarily observe that our own Rule 6(3) * * * could be read as automatically striking from our roll of counsel the name of any lawyer disbarred in any court of record. It has been amended and we consider this matter in keeping with the requirements and admonitions of Theard v. United States, 354 U.S. 278, 77 S.Ct. 1274, 1 L.Ed.2d 1342, and Selling v. Radford, 243 U.S. 46, 37 S.Ct. 377, 61 L.Ed. 585. These decisions forbid Federal Courts From acting in total reliance on a state judgment. We have before us, and have reviewed, the entire record developed by the Ohio proceedings, but think it proper to dispose of the matter primarily upon the charges on which the Ohio Court disciplined Mr. Ruffalo. The facts as to these are not in dispute.' 370 F.2d 447, 449 (1966) (note omitted).

^3  As the Court points out, there was no evidence before any of the state or federal courts which appraised petitioner's conduct that the man he employed had ever investigated a case in the yard where he worked, investigated on company time, or been given access to confidential railroad information.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).