A Free Speech Right to Impugn Judicial Integrity in Court Proceedings
72 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2009 Last revised: 10 Oct 2010
Date Written: October 23, 2009
Throughout the United States, state and federal courts discipline and sanction attorneys who make disparaging remarks about the judiciary and thereby impugn judicial integrity. In so doing, courts have almost universally rejected the constitutional standard established in New York Times v. Sullivan for punishing speech regarding government officials. While courts have imposed severe sanctions regardless of the forum where the speech has occurred, many of the cases involve speech made by attorneys in court proceedings. The existing scholarly literature generally supports the denial of First Amendment protection in such cases, indicating that attorney speech when made in court proceedings is entitled to little, if any, constitutional protection.
In A Free Speech Right to Impugn Judicial Integrity in Court Proceedings, Professor Tarkington examines why a free speech right to impugn judicial integrity must be recognized for attorneys - even, and perhaps especially, when acting as officers of the court and making statements in court proceedings. Such a right is necessary to protect the constitutional and other rights of litigants to an unbiased and competent judiciary. Further, the recognition of such a right in the attorney preserves litigants’ access to courts and due process rights. These rights belonging to litigants are all but lost where attorneys are punished for or chilled from asserting them in court proceedings. Previous scholarly arguments - which are based on analogies to other areas of limited First Amendment protection - fail to account for the protection of the underlying rights of litigants, the role of attorneys in our adversary system, and the constitutionally-required role of the judicial branch. Importantly, the judiciary does not need to punish attorney speech impugning judicial integrity in order to protect its legitimate interests in the just adjudication of cases. In fact, by curbing speech in the presentation of claims, the judiciary undermines its own role and responsibility in remedying constitutional violations and providing fair proceedings.
Keywords: First Amendment, Speech Clause, attorney speech, political speech, free speech, New York Times v. Sullivan, professional responsibility, courts, judges, professional ethics
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