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Hartford, Conn.-A Connecticut attorney’s poison-pen letter to former probate Judge John A. Berman is not protected free speech, a Superior Court judge has ruled, upholding a reprimand of him. West Hartford, Conn., lawyer Joseph Notopoulos had argued that he wrote and sent the letter in his capacity as a private citizen, not as a member of the bar, and shouldn’t be disciplined under ethics rules prohibiting attorneys from conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice or making statements intended to disrupt a tribunal. But New Britain, Conn., Superior Court Judge William P. Murray found otherwise. Notopoulos v. Statewide Grievance Committee. “The Rules of Professional Conduct bind attorneys to uphold the law and to act in accordance with high standards in both their personal and professional lives,” wrote Murray, citing appellate rulings in Statewide Grievance Committee v. Egbarin and Statewide Grievance Committee v. Scluger. First Amendment issue Murray also disagreed with Notopoulos’ claim that his criticisms-which included his contention that Berman had “prostituted the integrity of his office”-were absolutely protected under the First Amendment. “In the context of disciplinary proceedings, an attorney’s right to free speech must be balanced with the state’s interest in preserving the integrity of the judicial system,” Murray wrote. “Here, the significant state interest in preserving public confidence in the judicial system outweighs the free speech rights of Notopoulos to make reckless accusations about the integrity of a probate judge.” In an interview, Notopoulos said the decision amounts to unlawful censorship, and ignores controlling federal case law. Murray’s decision, Notopoulos warned, could have negative implications for nonpracticing lawyers who, in seeking elective office, engage in political mudslinging or take governmental entities to task. Angered by Berman’s 1999 decision to appoint a former accountant as his dying mother’s conservator, Notopoulos fired off correspondence to the West Hartford probate court in September 2000 accusing Berman of running “a financial spoils system for the cronies he calls his ‘professional conservators.’ “

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