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Md. high court suspends lawyers for bigoted emails

Two Maryland lawyers who exchanged racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails for about seven years while working at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been indefinitely suspended from the practice of law by the state’s top court.

A unanimous Court of Appeals said James Markey’s and Charles Hancock’s long-standing, bigoted behavior while serving at the federal agency violated the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct that prohibit bias or prejudice and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

In its 7-0 decision Friday, the high court accepted a hearing judge’s finding that Markey and Hancock belonged to a five-member email chain they called the “Forum of Hate” in which they sent each other derogatory messages about colleagues at the department’s Board of Veterans Appeals. The other three forum members were not Maryland lawyers, the high court stated.

In one of their many email exchanges, Markey – a veterans law judge – referred to a chief law judge, a Black woman, as “a total bitch.” Hancock, an attorney-adviser to law judges, called her a “ghetto hippopotamus (and) a despicable impersonation of a human woman who ought to (have) her cervix yanked out of her by the Silence of the Lamb(s) guy, and force-fed to her,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge James A. Bonifant found.

The Department of Veterans Affairs fired Markey and Hancock voluntarily retired after the agency’s inspector general discovered their emails five years ago. In May 2019, Maryland’s bar counsel filed a petition for disciplinary action against Markey and Hancock with the Court of Appeals.

In essentially granting the petition, the high court rejected the attorneys’ arguments that their comments, though offensive, were private and unrelated to their duties as an administrative judge and attorney-adviser. The court said the emails were sent during work hours, on government email accounts intended for official business, and concerned board matters and colleagues – thus making the offensive messages publicly available upon request via the federal Public Information Act.

“Any reasonable member of the public’s perception of the legal profession would be negatively affected upon learning that Markey and Hancock, a veterans law judge and attorney-adviser, used their department email addresses during work hours to repeatedly send such offensive emails about their colleagues in the legal profession over such a long period of time,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the high court.

“The remarks not only demonstrated little regard for others who the department employed in legal positions, but also evidenced little awareness of the professional trust and responsibility given to Markey and Hancock in their respective roles,” Watts added. “A reasonable member of the public would not expect a veterans law judge and attorney-adviser of the board to conduct themselves in such an unprofessional manner in the workplace.”

In the emails, Markey referred to a Black man as “a fast food working, basketball playing type,” suggested a “taco lunch” with the board’s Hispanic deputy vice chair and referred to as “creepy looking” the customers at a bar frequented by gay men, to cite a few examples of the offensive messages Bonifant found.

Hancock, in one email, referred to his son’s all-white Little League team by using stereotypical Hispanic and Black names, saying there was not a “Charo” or “Adrian” among the boys. In another, Hancock stated that “Randy is too gay a word to use here,” Bonifant found among the derogatory emails

“All of the circumstances that the hearing judge found point to the conclusion that Markey and Hancock made the inappropriate and offensive remarks intentionally over a lengthy period of time,” Watts wrote. “These were not spontaneous, impulsive, or out-of-character remarks or isolated incidents. Markey’s and Hancock’s misconduct clearly had the potential to undermine the work of the board and the public’s confidence in that work, as well as damage the public’s perception of the legal profession, the board, the department, and the federal government at large.”

The high court cited as factors mitigating against the more severe sanction of disbarment Markey’s and Hancock’s lack of prior attorney discipline, their cooperation with the inspector general’s and bar counsel’s investigations and the loss of their jobs due to their behavior.

“Markey’s and Hancock’s statements demonstrating bias and prejudice speak for themselves and constitute abhorrent conduct without the need for any evidence that Markey and/or Hancock discriminated against a particular veteran in a case before the board,” Watts wrote. “Markey’s and Hancock’s many inappropriate and offensive statements were demeaning of many groups of people in our society, an affront to the dignity of the legal profession and cannot be tolerated from any members of the bar of Maryland – especially ones who occupy positions of public trust.”

In a concurring opinion, Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote that “lawyers privileged to be in public service have a special obligation to exemplify those principles of fairness, probity, and adherence to constitutional values” embodied in the oath Maryland attorneys take when admitted to the bar.

“The lawyer’s oath is not a rote formula recited solely to cross the threshold of bar admission, but a pledge for the duration of one’s career,” McDonald wrote. “The conduct here was contrary to the lawyer’s oath and gave, at the least, the appearance that fairness and decency did not animate those charged with this important public service.”

The court rendered its decision in Attorney Grievance Commission v. James Andrew Markey and Charles Leonard Hancock, Misc. Docket AG No. 5, September Term 2019.

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