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A self-described liberal idealist who says his three visits to Cuba in violation of federal law were acts of civil disobedience has been denied admission to the New Jersey Bar by the state Supreme Court. Zachary Sanders, who passed the New Jersey bar exam in July 2001, first was given a thumbs down by the Committee on Character, which rejected his argument that he had a right to disobey what he called the “immoral and unjust” embargo on trade and travel to Cuba. A three-lawyer committee said, “it was crystal clear … that Mr. Sanders believes himself to be absolutely morally justified in breaking the law.” The panel said it viewed him as one who “detaches himself from responsibility to obey the law by endeavoring to distinguish the morality of the law from its legality.” The New Jersey Supreme Court heard Sanders plead his case pro se last April 29, and on May 6 Chief Justice Deborah Poritz signed an order denying him admission. In the Matter of the Application of Zachary Sanders, No. 55242. Sanders, 29, admitted traveling to Cuba three times through Mexico, Canada and the Bahamas; deceiving U.S. Customs officials about the visits on re-entry to the country; lying to customs agents about trying to smuggle Cuban cigars into the United States and blowing off a query by the U.S. Treasury Department seeking information about his first visit. That last move led to a $10,000 department fine for ignoring the query, a fine Sanders acknowledged he made no effort to pay. “In my estimation, being a lawyer does not mean blindly following unjust and immoral laws,” Sanders wrote to the high court in November 2002, after the Committee on Character recommended that he not be admitted. Sanders continued, “A healthy respect for the rule of law, and one’s duty to comply with it as an officer of the Court, does not prevent one from engaging in civil disobedience.” Sanders went on to cite injustices codified in law, such as “slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the Japanese internment camps, and the displacement of Native Americans.” He invoked Gandhi, Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr., and argued that if the committee’s recommendation were to be followed, it would mean that “civil disobedience would be foreclosed.” In a rebuttal brief, John Janasie, the first assistant ethics counsel with the Office of Attorney Ethics, argued Sanders’ actions had nothing to do with civil disobedience. “He was selectively choosing to violate the laws of the U.S. in the pursuit of his personal interest and hoping not to get caught,” wrote Janasie. Sanders said that his personal interest was to go to Cuba out of “a sincere desire to see a country which has chosen to organize itself around socialist principles first hand. ” Such trips, he argued, “ do not render me unfit” to practice law. CHASTISED FOR LYING But the smuggled cigars proved to be Sanders’ undoing. The Committee on Character, the OAE brief and subsequent oral argument focused not so much on the trips and the cigars but on Sanders’ lying about them. The committee said he offered no “good or political explanation” for trying to bring them back. Sanders said he committed an “error in judgment” by bringing boxes of cigars back for friends on his first and second trips. Apparently learning from his mistakes — his bags were searched the first two times — he brought no cigars back from his third trip, in August 2001, just after graduating from Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. The committee report, written by Chairman Robert Ritter, said it was clear Sanders felt “morally justified in breaking the law and lying to Customs Officials not once, not twice, but three times.” Ritter, a partner with Hackensack, N.J.’s Schiffman, Berger, Abraham, Kaufman & Ritter, excoriated Sanders over his unremorseful and combative position. He wrote: “The explanation is not acceptable to the citizens of this country. “Lawyers, in particular, cannot choose which laws they will violate because of political beliefs. Further, only after the committee expressed serious concern about his conduct did Mr. Sanders volunteer that he would only make future trips to Cuba with the appropriate government authorization. The testimony was self-serving as the committee believes that he would continue to violate the law with impunity but for the pending decision of this committee.” Ritter declines to comment on the case. The committee, which included Guttenberg solo practitioner Robert Feder and Glenn Peterson of Clifton, N.J.’s Peterson & Peterson, acknowledged Sanders’ “devotion to his cause” of doing legal work for the needy and oppressed while in law school. They added, however, that the committee was nevertheless “forced to condemn his flaunting of the law in furtherance of his professed ideals.” Sanders’ retort was an attack on Ritter. In his brief, he said he found Ritter’s remarks about what is acceptable to U.S. citizens “puzzling,” called Ritter “empirically wrong” and said it is only conjecture what the American people feel about the embargo because “unfortunately the Cuban policy is not subject to popular vote.” He questioned Ritter’s “arrogant belief (which permeated the entire hearing … ) that he spoke for all U.S. citizens … ” and went on to write that “ one senses … that Ritter was personally offended” at Sanders’ beliefs about the embargo. That piece of testiness only got Sanders in hotter water. The OAE’s Janasie urged the court to deny his admission in part because of that “intemperate exchange.” Citing case law, Janasie wrote that to deal with Bar examiners in such a fashion demonstrates that Sanders lacks appreciation for the need for “ordinary civility and common decency” as “essential for the justice system to run evenly.” Janasie said Sanders “went out of his way to criticize the chair.” AN ACTIVIST COMES EAST Sanders was born in Portland, Ore., in 1974. He was raised there, except for short stints in Eugene, Ore., and in California. After graduating from high school he attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, but after one semester transferred to the University of Oregon, where he earned a B.A. in June 1996. From midsummer 1997 through April 1998, he lived in Queretaro, Mexico, where he was a part-time English teacher, according to court records. In August 1998, he began law school, graduating three years later. His activism began with his working with Hispanic immigrants while still in high school in Eugene. He was in a program that helped the children of immigrants prepare for their GED exams in English and Spanish. He also taught English as a second language to grammar school children. He was dropped from the GED program after tutoring a female student outside of class, a violation of the program’s policy, according to court papers. He told the character committee he did not know until later that the girl considered him her boyfriend. He had two minor scrapes with the law, his certification says. He was picked up for violating a curfew when he was 14, and held by police for several hours. He told the committee he believes he was stopped because his companion was black, leading to a committee query about why he thought the stop was “police racism” as opposed to the police doing their job. While in college, he received a police summons for carrying an open container of alcohol. He paid a fine. He told the committee it was a “boda bag” and that he did not think it constituted an open container under the statute. While in law school he worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York on police brutality cases, with the Institute for Democratic Studies as a part-time researcher and with the Labor Bureau of New York state’s attorney general’s office. He also worked with the Legal Action Center in New York, helping recovered drug addicts re-enter the workforce, and at Cardozo he was involved in a program to help victims of domestic violence gain protective custody orders. In addition, he devoted some time to the Central American Legal Assistance Program. Sanders cited these activities, including working currently with illegal aliens “who face violence and upheaval,” to convince the committee of his worthiness. But the committee, and the OAE, said he must be denied because of his behavior surrounding his trips to Cuba. The first trip was in May 1998, when he was living in Mexico. He returned via the Bahamas and failed to tell customs officials he had been to Cuba. He relented only when his bags were searched and the cigars were found. His second trip was in August 2000, between his second and third year in law school. This time he left from Canada and returned through Canada. Again, he failed to disclose his Cuba visit on the declaration form and failed to declare the new batch of Cuban cigars he was trying to sneak across the border. And again, he was caught when officials searched his luggage and fined him $100 on the spot. His second trip was five months after he received the letter from the Treasury Department seeking information about his first trip. The third trip occurred in August 2001, two months after his graduation from Cardozo and one month after he sat for the bar exam for both states. Sanders disclosed the trips on his certification for admission to the New Jersey Bar, triggering a hearing in March 2002. After some testimony — Sanders acted pro se — Ritter adjourned the hearing to allow Sanders time to get counsel. Sanders said he consulted counsel but continued pro se at the second hearing, on April 8, 2002. He called no witnesses. After the panel’s report and the subsequent briefs, Sanders appealed to the state Supreme Court. The court issued a show-cause order last February asking Sanders to appear before the justices to show why the recommendation should not be adopted. Two sources familiar with such proceedings say this is not usual, suggesting that the justices wanted to be on the record about the circumstances surrounding Sanders’ application. Chief Justice Deborah Poritz’s order gives no vote, though one source says it was 6-1 against Sanders, with Justice Virginia Long dissenting. Long, through a spokeswoman, declines comment. But the court obviously bought the OAE arguments, handled by OAE staff lawyer Walton Kingsbery III. Citing the rules as well as the key precedent, In the Matter of the Application of Matthews, 94 N.J. 59 (1983), Janasie and Kingsbery contended that Sanders lacked the “traits of honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness and reliability … and a professional commitment to the judicial process and the administration of justice.” The difference was that Matthews was a more typical scenario in which the candidate was denied because he had engaged in an investment fraud, rather than flaunting a law without financial gain and claiming it was done on principle. Sanders can reapply after a year, but it’s clear from the record that the court will be looking for remorse and a changed attitude. Sanders, who was admitted in New York in 2001 and was practicing in Manhattan last year, says in his court papers that he is now with a nonprofit law firm. He could not be reached for comment. His home telephone in Brooklyn is no longer active. He has no listed business or residential number in New York City. A query to the New York state judicial system’s Attorney Registration Unit was not answered.

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