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SC Disciplinary Counsel: “Unequal Justice”




“Equal justice under the law” is the bedrock of American jurisprudence.  The notion that all citizens are subject to the same set of rules – no matter who they are – is one of the most sacred tenets of our representative democracy.

It’s a basic principle of fairness upon which the credibility of our entire system rests.

Of course we know that justice is not always blind.  It routinely peeks for the powerful – or looks the other way when the weak are being oppressed.

This is especially true in our home state of South Carolina, where selective prosecution and outright obstruction run rampant – and where outcomes of cases are usually dependent on politics, not merits.

Sort of like the selection of the judges who dispense “justice” in the Palmetto State …

But what about justice for the attorneys who advocate within our legal system?  In regulating their conduct, shouldn’t the same principles of fairness apply?

They should … but they don’t.

In fact the S.C. Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) is among the most maddeningly subjective entities in all of state government.  Not to mention one of the most powerful.

“Regulating the conduct of both judges and lawyers is critical to preserving the integrity of the South Carolina judicial system and to instilling public confidence in the administration of justice,” the ODC’s website states.

We concur with that sentiment.  Unfortunately, this lofty ideal is languishing at ODC – where attorneys tell us they are routinely subjected to uneven judgment on the basis of ever-evolving criteria.

With no way of challenging unfair outcomes …

“It’s corrupt as hell,” one attorney who has dealt with the office previously. “Everyone is treated differently and everyone (gets) different punishments and there is no appeal.”

Not only that, ODC has jurisdiction over matters that fall well outside the criminal realm – like when attorney is reported for having a drinking problem or an addiction issue.  This broad scope dramatically expands the oversight authority of the office – as well as its subjectivity.

Not only that, the ODC has unrestricted subpoena, search and seizure powers when it comes to the attorneys and judges it investigates.

See the potential for career-ending witch hunts?

(Click to view)


“I mean, it’s a privilege to practice. I get it,” the lawyer added.  “But we are the only professionals (who) police ourselves.”

Again, we have no problem with the judicial branch exercising such oversight pertaining to matters of ethics … we’re just concerned that the ODC’s power to investigate attorneys’ personal lives is too broad.

And we’re extremely concerned about its inherent lack of fairness.

If the judicial branch is going to investigate and discipline attorneys and judges for either “committed ethical misconduct” or for “a physical or mental condition which adversely affects their ability to serve the public” (as its website suggests it is doing) then there must be standards.

Not only that, there must also be consistency in how these standards are enforced and what punishments are doled out for violators.  And there must be a process by which such punishments can be appealed.

And yes, all of this must be public.  Every step.

Under the reign of former S.C. chief justice Jean Toal, the ODC was said to be the equivalent of a Gestapo-like inquisition – one which bent/ fabricated the facts of cases to suit certain preordained outcomes.

Hopefully such practices will be abandoned by the new regime, but steps should be taken now to ensure fairness moving forward.  Not only does this office need to narrow (and more clearly define) the conduct it intends to regulate, but it must also establish specific punishments for violators and impose those evenly – with attorneys granted the right to have their appeals heard before the Supreme Court.

If the ODC is serious about upholding the integrity of the state’s judicial processes – then it must hold itself to the same standards of “equal justice.”

(Banner via iStock)