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Fulton, Ga., Prosecutor Clinton K. Rucker faces several possible punishments from the Georgia Bar for practicing law while delinquent in his Bar dues, but some experts say criminal charges are unlikely. The State Bar of Georgia generally investigates complaints against its members, and against those who falsely represent themselves to be lawyers. When circumstances warrant, the Bar turns cases over to the solicitor’s office, which occasionally prosecutes them as misdemeanors. However, Fulton County Solicitor General Carmen Smith says that she can’t remember a case in which the Bar investigated and pursued a complaint against a prosecutor for practicing while delinquent on his dues. Unlicensed practice of law actions usually stem from clients’ complaints that a lawyer took their money fraudulently, Smith says, not from complaints that a lawyer hasn’t paid the Bar. “I don’t recall it ever having to do with Bar dues,” she says. “It’s always about the money.” By not paying his 2000-2001 dues, Rucker endangered his stunning conviction of Dionne Baugh for the 1996 murder of computer executive Lance Herndon. State v. Baugh, No. Z98879. The jury was deliberating the case Tuesday afternoon when Bar officials informed Judge Jerry W. Baxter that Rucker was not a member in good standing. The defense moved for a mistrial, but before the judge could hold a hearing, the jury returned with a conviction. On Wednesday, Baxter denied the defense motion, but warned that the case would make its way through the appeals system to the Georgia Supreme Court. DISCIPLINE CONSIDERED Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. says he will look into the possibility of disciplining his chief senior assistant district attorney, but he hasn’t decided what punishment would be appropriate. The State Bar of Georgia could take action, but there are degrees of violation, and there are degrees of punishment ranging from a reprimand to a suspension, to disbarment and criminal prosecution. State Bar of Georgia Assistant General Counsel Steven J. Kaczkowski declines to comment on any specific instances of unlicensed practice, but says the Bar generally tries “to match the response in proportion to the conduct.” “In many cases we have a disciplinary rule that could apply,” he says. “Every violation doesn’t necessarily result in a criminal complaint.” On the stand during Wednesday’s mistrial hearing, State Bar Membership Director Gayle Baker characterized Rucker’s status during the Baugh trial as “an actual, informal suspension,” because the prosecutor had not paid his dues. That is, while the state supreme court has not reprimanded, suspended or disbarred Rucker, he was nevertheless, not “a member in good standing,” and thus ineligible to practice anywhere in Georgia, Baker said. PROSECUTION UNLIKELY But Rees Smith, who prosecutes unlicensed practice of law cases for the solicitor’s office, says that in order for him to prosecute such a case “It has to be a gross violation and then something has to go wrong.” For example, he says, a suspended lawyer takes a big tort case, takes his client’s money, and then botches the job. That, he says, might be a prosecutable case. In Rucker’s case, he says he would pursue the case if the Bar demanded action. “But I wouldn’t generate one on my own,” he says. SUMNER CASE The most serious examples of unlicensed practice violations stem from behavior that could generate far more serious charges, such as fraud or theft by deception, Smith says. Last year, for example, a Fulton grand jury indicted disbarred lawyer William E. Sumner on three counts of unlicensed practice of law and six counts of theft. The district attorney’s office filed a nolle prosse in the case in December, but Howard said his office still plans to prosecute Sumner. The district attorney said that several people had read news accounts of the charges against Sumner and decided to come forward with new information, which his prosecutors needed time to process. Smith’s take on such a violation is not unique. In 1996 Clayton County Solicitor Keith C. Martin learned that a member of his staff, Robert A. McDonald, had failed to pay his Bar dues before handling some 2,000 cases for the office. McDonald resigned and the matter was turned over to Clayton District Attorney Robert E. Keller. However, Keller declined to prosecute the case, saying it was a matter for the Bar to handle. When McDonald paid his fees, the Bar backdated them to include the date he was sworn in. A year later, Martin said his office didn’t receive a challenge to any of McDonald’s cases.

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