Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Michael Hodes (Daily Record file photo 2012)

Disbar 1st, explain why later

Same-day sanctions against lawyers rise under new chief judge

To any lawyer facing disbarment, Maryland’s top court has sent a message: Have your bags packed before you come to Annapolis.

The Court of Appeals has disbarred nine lawyers within 24 hours of hearing their disciplinary matters since September 2013, when Judge Mary Ellen Barbera became chief judge. By comparison, the last term of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell saw only one lawyer disbarred within 24 hours of arguments in an attorney grievance matter.

The change went largely unremarked until this month’s same-day disbarment of Michael C. Hodes, formerly a prominent Towson-based lawyer who was stripped of his law license Oct. 7 over his handling of some $270,000 a deceased client left in his care.

Hodes’ immediate disbarment marked a tipping point of sorts: of seven Attorney Grievance petitions the court heard in October, Hodes’ was the fourth to be decided within 24 hours. In other words, an immediate resolution “with opinion to be filed later” was statistically more likely than not.

The switch to a quick turnaround has not gone unnoticed at the Attorney Grievance Commission, whose Bar Counsel investigates and seeks sanctions against attorneys accused of wrongdoing.

“The Office of Bar Counsel appreciates the expedited dispositions,” said Deputy Bar Counsel Raymond A. Hein.

Hein and others also noted that fast resolution also advances the stated goal of the disciplinary process: not to punish the attorney, but to protect the public.

“If the court has concluded that a given attorney is a danger to the public, why wait to remove them from the practice of law?” said Irwin R. Kramer, who has often represented lawyers facing disciplinary action.

Not including disbarments by consent, the Barbera Court has disbarred 20 lawyers in petitions it heard since the start of the September 2013 Term, according to orders and opinions listed on the court’s website.

“It does seem that when there is a unanimous vote to disbar, they go right ahead and issue the opinion,” said Steven M. Klepper, editor-in-chief of the Maryland Appellate Blog, which tracks the goings on of the Court of Appeals.

All told, the Barbera Court has heard 41 attorney grievance cases since September 2013. As of Friday, there were seven such cases awaiting resolution, all of them heard between Sept. 3 and Oct. 7. Excluding the undecided cases as well as consent sanctions, the Barbera Court’s average wait for a decision in an attorney grievance case so far is 37.4 days.

By contrast, the court heard 23 attorney grievance cases in the September 2012 term, Bell’s last. Not counting former delgate Tiffany Alston, who consented to disbarment three weeks after argument, the Bell Court disbarred 11 lawyers, one on the same day as it heard arguments. Overall, the average wait for resolution of an attorney grievance case in Bell’s last term was 97.5 days. That compared to five months for all types of cases, according to The Daily Record’s prior reports on the lengthy wait for opinions during Bell’s tenure.

The current court’s faster resolutions are in line with Barbera’s stated goal of having the Court of Appeals decide all of the cases it hears in a term by the last day of that term, a standard she reached last year and has pledged to uphold.

“Efficiency is clearly proving to be a hallmark of Chief Judge Barbera’s court,” said Klepper, a principal at Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore.

Barbera was away at a judicial conference last week and could not be reached for comment.

Kramer, of Kramer & Connolly in Reisterstown, said his only concern about immediate disbarments was that it gives lawyers no time to wind down their practice, which could harm existing clients. Hodes, in an interview last week with The Daily Record, said he decided to announce his retirement as a lawyer Oct. 1 figuring he would have a couple weeks to wind down his practice before the court weighed in on his disciplinary matter.

Knowing the top court could take swift action would not impact how Kramer prepared or presented his case to the judges, he added.

“If a client is not worthy of disbarment, I’d make the same argument to the Court of Appeals,” Kramer said.

Disbarments Chart

About Danny Jacobs

Danny Jacobs is the legal editor at The Daily Record. He previously covered trial courts at the state and local levels and served as web editor.