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Professors of Legal Ethics File Brief Opposing Judges’ Efforts to Oust Lawyers in Truancy Court Case

Posted: August 02, 2010|Category: Due Process Category: Students' Rights Category: Youth Rights

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From law schools across the nation, twenty professors of legal ethics today filed a “friend of the court” brief opposing efforts by former Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah and the Family Court magistrates that preside over Truancy Court proceedings, to remove two National ACLU attorneys from a lawsuit challenging the legality of various Truancy Court practices. The defendants have claimed that the exercise of free speech rights by the attorneys, Robin Dahlberg and Yelena Konanova, by holding a press conference to describe their clients’ claims, constituted “reckless professional misconduct,” and that they should not be permitted to appear in the Rhode Island courts. But the law professors’ brief argues that their public comments constituted “core political speech protected by the First Amendment” and were permitted under the Rhode Island Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys. The law professors argued that granting the defendants' motion would unconstitutionally “chill the robust debate necessary for democratic governance.”

The pending lawsuit, filed in March by the National ACLU and its Rhode Island affiliate, charges that the truancy courts are frequently punitive in nature, and that truancy court magistrates threaten vulnerable children and their parents with baseless fines and imprisonment, remove children from the custody of their parents without legal justification and fail to keep adequate records of court hearings. The lawsuit also charges that the court system disproportionately impacts children with special educational or medical needs. Since the suit was filed, the ACLU has been contacted by more than 40 parents or students seeking to participate in the case.

In calling for the Court to revoke the privileges of Dahlberg and Konanova to appear in the case, the judges cited comments the attorneys made the day the suit was filed. Among them is this statement from Dahlberg: “Pushing kids into the juvenile justice system is not the way to help at-risk youth graduate from high school and, in fact, only increases the likelihood that they will ultimately end up in the criminal justice system.”

The law professors’ 16-page brief responds that “providing information to the citizenry about the operation of the judicial system is essential . . . The attorneys' comments in this case explaining plaintiffs' challenge to the legality of the Truancy Court Program educate the public about an important but often overlooked role of government: the exercise of legal authority over juveniles. . . . Such comments thus comprise a crucial strand in the fabric of vigorous advocacy that the First Amendment protects.”

The brief on behalf of the law professors, six of whom have co-authored respected casebooks on legal ethics, was submitted by attorney Thomas R. Bender and Roger Williams University Law School Professor Peter Margulies. In addition to Dahlberg and Konanova, the lawsuit itself is being handled by Deborah N. Archer of New York Law School and Rhode Island ACLU cooperating attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Amy R. Tabor.

R.I. Superior Court Judge William Carnes is holding a court hearing tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM on a separate motion of the magistrates to have the case dismissed.

Read more about this case.

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