Supreme Court Files Three Disciplinary Opinions

Most disciplinary cases in Pennsylvania are decided by brief per curiam orders of the Supreme Court, adopting, modifying, or rejecting a Report of the Disciplinary Board.

In December, however, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of writing three full-length opinions in disciplinary cases. Supreme Court opinions are carefully studied within the disciplinary system, as they often have far-reaching effects on the decision of future cases.

On Deceber 27, 2005, in the case of Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. William B. Kiesewetter, Jr., No. 968 Disciplinary Docket No. 3, Chief Justice Ralph Cappy wrote an opinion dealing with the issue of collateral estoppel. The attorney in question had been found to have engaged in fraud in a civil case. Since civil fraud must be proven by the same elevated standard of proof as is used in disciplinary proceedings, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel used the record of the civil case to prove the allegations of misconduct, arguing that the attorney was barred from contesting those allegations by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, which prevents parties from relitigating issues they have already lost in a different forum. Chief Justice Cappy examined the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel and concluded that it was properly applied in the case. The attorney was disbarred for the fraudulent conduct proven in the civil case. The unanimous opinion is available online here.

On December 28, 2005, an opinion written by Justice Newman was filed in the case of In the Matter of Julius C. Melograne, No. 820 Disciplinary Docket No. 3, which dealt with a lawyer who had been convicted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to violate civil rights for actions committed while he was a District Justice, based on "participation in a conspiracy with two employees of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County to bring about unfavorable rulings for two individuals in their statutory appeals." Justice Newman noted that both dishonesty in judicial proceedings and misconduct in a role of public responsibility have been held to warrant very serious discipline. She concluded, "when an attorney who holds judicial office commits misconduct that affects the fairness of an adjudication, disbarment is clearly a sanction that we must strongly consider." She therefore rejected the recommendation of the Disciplinary Board that Melograne be suspended for five years and ordered his disbarment instead. All of the Justices joined in this opinion except Justice Castille, who did not participate. The opinion is posted online here.

In a decision handed down on December 30, 2005, the Supreme Court held that a lawyer who failed to reveal in his New Jersey and Pennsylvania bar applications that he had been subject to discipline in his prior occupation as a doctor, and misrepresented his employment history, would be disbarred despite evidence that his judgment was affected by a number of psychiatric conditions. In the case of Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Akim Frederic Czmus, No. 914 Disciplinary Docket No. 3, the majority opinion, written by Justice Eakin, found that Czmus had engaged in a twenty-year pattern of deceit across two professions, and concluded, “this Court will not reward respondent with the presumption of reinstatement after five years since his admittance to the bar was predicated on fraudulent precepts in the first instance. Only disbarment, which places a higher burden on respondent if he should seek readmittance, will properly protect the goals of the profession and require respondent to be totally candid to the reviewing tribunal before his readmittance will be considered.” A concurring and dissenting opinion, written by Justice Newman and joined by Justices Castille and Baer, concurred with the disbarment but recommended revoking Czmus’s admission to the practice of law, requiring him to begin the admissions process from the beginning. The majority opinion may be read here, and the concurring and dissenting opinion here.