From The BLT

A Korean criminal should not be treated the same as a U.S. one for attorney disciplinary purposes, a Washington, D.C., appellate court has ruled.

Following a flight from Washington to Seoul, Rockville, Md.-based lawyer Jinhee Kim Wilde was charged with stealing $1,100 in cash from a fellow passenger. She was subsequently convicted by a court in Incheon, where Seoul's main international airport is located. The attorney was a member of the D.C. Bar, so after learning of her conviction, the Office of Bar Counsel began disciplinary proceedings as they would for a lawyer convicted in a U.S. court.

Wilde opposed bar counsel’s efforts, arguing the rules applying to convictions in U.S. state and federal courts shouldn’t apply to convictions in foreign courts. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals agreed.

The court ruled that under local law and the Rules of Professional Responsibility, a criminal conviction from a court in a foreign country can’t be treated the same as a conviction in a U.S. state or federal court. However, the court did find that the Office of Bar Counsel, which prosecutes attorney discipline cases, could bring charges and then try to prove that a foreign court proceeding was fair and the conviction should be considered. The court dismissed Wilde’s case, but left the door open for the office to bring charges of misconduct against Wilde.

Bar Counsel Wallace Shipp Jr., said today that his office was “looking for direction from the court and the court, with this opinion, certainly gave it to us.”

Wilde was represented by Kevin Bedell of Greenberg Traurig. In a phone interview today, Wilde said she was innocent of the theft charge and was glad the D.C. court dismissed her case. "I am also glad that they recognized that different court systems have different standards and systems," she said. The court system in South Korea, she added, seemed to adhere to a standard of "guilty until proven innocent."

Unlike cases in which bar counsel initiates charges against an attorney for misconduct, the process is different for lawyers convicted in criminal proceedings. Once a lawyer is found guilty of a "serious crime" as defined by bar rules, bar counsel only has to prove to the Board on Professional Responsibility that the lawyer was found guilty of a crime of “moral turpitude," as opposed to having to prove the full underlying case. The board makes a recommendation to the appeals court, which makes the final decision.

After bar counsel notified the D.C. appeals court of Wilde’s conviction and recommended disciplinary action, Wilde opposed the request, saying the rules governing disciplinary action for a criminal conviction shouldn’t apply to convictions from foreign courts. She was placed on a temporary suspension.

As Wilde’s disciplinary matter in D.C. moved ahead, a court in Maryland cleared her of misconduct in a similar disciplinary proceeding. In that case, bar counsel withdrew a request to enter the Incheon conviction into the record because it didn’t meet the standards for evidence, according to today’s opinion.

The Board on Professional Responsibility in D.C. recommended reconsidering Wilde’s suspension, finding the guidelines for punishing attorneys convicted in U.S. courts didn't apply to foreign courts. Bar counsel argued that not recognizing convictions from other countries would give lawyers a “free pass” because it would be difficult to prove a case that took place in another country, especially in light of the office’s geographically limited subpoena power.

Cases such as Wilde’s are rare. According to the opinion, the court was aware of only one other case in which a U.S. court imposed discipline based on a conviction in a foreign court. Bar counsel argued that given the increasingly global nature of legal practice, the court could expect to see more such cases in the future.

The board countered that if a foreign conviction was treated the same as a U.S. conviction, the board would have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a defendant was treated fairly and afforded due process by the foreign court, which would be difficult.

Senior Judge James Belson, writing for the panel, said the rules for disciplining lawyers convicted in U.S. courts weren’t meant to apply to foreign court proceedings, meaning a conviction in a foreign court couldn’t automatically trigger discipline. However, the court found that bar counsel had discretion to bring charges and then argue to have the foreign court conviction considered as part of its case.

Judges Stephen Glickman and Anna Blackburne-Rigsby also heard the case.