In an important victory for vigorous advocacy by civil rights attorneys, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston today reversed District Court Judge Mary Lisi’s sanctions on attorneys in the Cornel Young, Jr. civil rights case for allegedly misrepresenting the judge’s position in court papers. The Rhode Island ACLU had filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the attorneys. The brief, filed by volunteer attorney Amy R. Tabor, had argued that Judge Lisi’s actions “not only violated the due process and First Amendment rights of both the plaintiff and her attorneys, but will, if not reversed, chill and undermine the independent and vigorous advocacy that is an indispensable component of our system of justice.”
Judge Lisi removed Leisa Young’s two out-of-state lawyers mid-trial and then issued a finding that they and local attorney Robert Mann had violated a federal court rule, known as Rule 11, that bars baseless court filings. Specifically, she focused on two statements in an eight-page memorandum, which she said falsely claimed that she had ordered them to enter into a stipulation of the City’s choice concerning the accuracy of an exhibit. The attorneys and the ACLU brief claimed that the statements at issue, when read in context, instead accurately stated that the trial court required them to accept the stipulation if they wanted to use certain exhibits in their opening statement.
The appellate court agreed, ruling that “the memorandum taken as a whole did no more than say, albeit inartfully, that the trial judge had required the stipulation to be signed as a condition of using the diagram in the opening.” As a result, the court reversed all of the sanctions imposed against the three attorneys.
ACLU volunteer attorney Amy Tabor said today: “Today’s ruling is an important one. If attorneys faced censure for what amounts to no more than inartful or rushed drafting during the heat of trial, the result would likely be more lawyers who become cautious, timorous and fearful of engaging in vigorous advocacy. I am pleased that the First Circuit recognized this.”