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The California Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed likely to uphold the State Bar’s practice of recommending automatic disbarment for attorneys convicted of felonies involving moral turpitude. Hearing arguments in a pair of discipline cases, the justices didn’t sound ready to accept the argument that even attorneys convicted of the worst crimes are entitled to an evidentiary hearing before the State Bar decides on the appropriate disciplinary action. Nor did the justices seem eager to undercut the Legislature’s decision three years ago to reintroduce the term “moral turpitude” as grounds for getting kicked out of the profession. “The Legislature adopted a bright-line rule that a convicted thief should not be a lawyer,” noted Justice Marvin Baxter. Wouldn’t it be better for practitioners to have a bright-line rule, he asked, “as opposed to one suggesting that if you’re convicted there may be an opportunity to avoid disbarment?” Ellen Pansky, the attorney representing disbarred attorneys Stuart Lesansky and Cristeta Paguirigan, conceded that her clients should face disciplinary proceedings. But she pressed the justices to instruct the State Bar Court to interpret the statute in a way that would first afford attorneys an opportunity to be heard. “There could be a whole range of mitigating factors that will serve to reduce a penalty,” said Pansky, a partner at South Pasadena’s Pansky & Markle. But State Bar attorney Richard Zanassi said that since the summary disbarment statute was first introduced in 1872, the state’s high court has considered attorney punishment many times and has created a broad body of case law that defines what attorney actions amount to moral turpitude. “To be fit to practice law requires good moral character,” said Zanassi. “If you don’t have that, that’s an element that’s missing.” The cases — In re Paguirigan on Discipline, S076968, and In re Lesansky on Discipline, S079499 — are the first to challenge summary disbarment in moral turpitude cases since the Legislature revived that term three years ago. But the term is not new. Until 1955, it appeared on the books as grounds for disqualifying an attorney from practice. Between 1955 and 1985, the State Bar Court considered each charged attorney’s case on its own merits. In 1986, the Legislature brought back summary disbarment, but required that the attorney be convicted of a felony involving specific intent to deceive and that the victim of the offense be a client. Wednesday’s cases arose after the automatic disbarment of two attorneys under the 1997 amendment. That same year, Paguirigan entered a plea of no contest to a charge of forging a client’s signature on a revised declaration. But her attorneys argue that none of the statements in the declaration was inaccurate or untrue. Lesansky, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to attempting a lewd act on a minor. In May 1997, while participating in chat-room conversations on the Internet, he began communicating with “Lisabruce,” who was actually a 20-year-old Fox News reporter working on a story about sex on the Internet. Over several days the reporter engaged in various conversations with Lesansky, some of them sexual, and in which she said that although she looked about 17, she was really 14. Lesansky was arrested after he traveled to meet her. In arguing that her clients were deprived of due process in being booted from the profession, Pansky noted that a charged attorney’s fate can depend on how prosecutors charge a particular offense. And she said the Penal Code doesn’t indicate whether particular offenses amount to “moral turpitude.” Justice Stanley Mosk seemed the most sympathetic to the idea that attorneys be given an opportunity to explain themselves and present mitigating factors. In Paguirigan’s case, for instance, he noted that the attorney’s fraudulent act did not benefit her personally. “Can you think of any other example where the party is disciplined without a hearing?” Mosk asked Zanassi. Zanassi suggested that teachers can see their licenses summarily revoked for certain actions. But Justices Ming Chin and Joyce Kennard each noted that charged attorneys get the chance to explain any mitigating circumstances during the criminal proceedings. Is a convicted attorney, Kennard asked, “entitled to yet another hearing before the Bar Court before summary disbarment can be imposed?” Still, Pansky argued that, although the Legislature wrote the statute, the California Supreme Court retains the inherent authority to regulate attorneys in the practice of law, and it should require the State Bar Court to consider mitigating factors before acting. But the argument appeared to fall flat. “This court naturally always retains its inherent authority over attorney disciplinary matters,” said Kennard. But, she added, the court “is free to agree with the Legislature without giving up that authority.”

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