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An attorney’s poison-pen letter to former West Hartford Probate Judge John A. Berman is not protected free speech, a Connecticut Superior Court judge ruled late last month, upholding a reprimand lodged against Joseph Notopoulos. The West Hartford, Conn., lawyer had argued that he wrote and sent the letter in his capacity as a private citizen, not a member of the bar, and therefore shouldn’t be disciplined under ethics rules prohibiting attorneys from engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice or making statements intended to disrupt a tribunal. But ruling in Notopoulos v. Statewide Grievance Committee, New Britain Superior Court Judge William P. Murray found otherwise. “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. 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. In his decision, Murray didn’t address the main case Notopoulos cited in appealing the grievance committee’s reprimand: the 1974 federal court ruling in Polk v. The State Bar of Texas. In that case, plaintiff Ed J. Polk, a licensed Texas attorney, was sanctioned by bar officials for comments he made to the news media following his arrest on drunk driving charges, which included calling a judge “perverse.” Finding Polk’s reprimand violated his free-speech rights, U.S. District Court Judge Robert M. Dunn wrote, “This court rejects the contention � that in order to maintain the general esteem of the public in the legal profession … conduct of an attorney in all matters must be above and beyond that conduct of nonlawyers.” Murray’s decision, Notopoulos warned, could have negative implications for non-practicing lawyers who, in seeking elective office, engage in political mudslinging or take governmental entities to task. “I can safely predict that the more vocal non-practicing Connecticut lawyers, such as Bill Curry, Ralph Nader and Joe Lieberman, will be astonished to learn that they’ve surrendered their First Amendment rights to the state of Connecticut as punishment … for having passed the state bar,” he said. Murray, however, noted that Notopoulos had other more effective options at his disposal, such as bringing his complaints about Berman to the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct, but failed to avail himself of them. 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.’” Notopoulos also sent copies of the letter to his brother and a local physician, according to the reviewing panel that heard the complaint subsequently lodged by Berman. Murray said Notopoulos may have escaped the grievance committee’s ire had his criticisms stuck to his concerns over the conservator’s appointment. “Notopoulos, however, personally attacked Judge Berman and the West Hartford Probate Court and ascribed actions and motives to Judge Berman totally unsupportive of any evidence,” Murray wrote. Notopoulos denied his claims were unsubstantiated. He is considering a further appeal, but acknowledged the reprimand has “little consequence to me because I’m a non-practicing lawyer.” He serves as a Hartford Judicial District magistrate, he said. “I’m tempted to let [Murray's ruling] stand,” Notopoulos added, “as a monument to flawed jurisprudence.”

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