Outrage over news that a prominent attorney charged in a domestic violence case will likely face no disciplinary proceedings points to a gulf between what advocates think should happen to lawyers in such cases, and what actually happens.
On one side are advocates like Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence Chief Executive Officer Karen Jarmoc, who joined state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, in criticizing attorney reaction to news of the arrest.
On the other are ethics lawyers who seem to unanimously agree that an attorney facing misdemeanor assault charges will likely face no formal sanctions under the rules governing attorney behavior.
“I think it is the responsibility of the disciplinary counsel to take a pause and assess how they are viewing this crime,” Jarmoc told the Connecticut Law Tribune Tuesday. “I think domestic violence is a serious crime that should be discussed and considered as relevant enough to take up. What we know is that this was a first-time arrest. But what we also know about domestic violence is it’s a longtime pattern of behavior.”
At the heart of the controversy is land-use attorney and longtime Robinson & Cole partner Dwight Merriam, arrested May 1 on third-degree assault and disorderly conduct charges. Merriam is now on indefinite leave from the firm following an altercation with his fiancée, who says the attorney assaulted her with a frying pan and left a softball-sized mark on her hip.
The incident comes into focus in the age of #MeToo, a movement against sexual harassment and assault. It’s unfolding as another high-profile lawyer, former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, resigned Monday, hours after The New Yorker wrote an expose accusing him of assaulting four former girlfriends.
With the spotlight shifting to the legal profession, advocates are pressing to see how Connecticut’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel will address attorneys accused of violence.
Experts seem doubtful that allegations such as the ones leveled at Merriam will trigger ethics cases.
“Will a misdemeanor result in a disciplinary action? In this particular case, almost certainly not,” said Leslie Levin, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law and expert on the legal profession, ethical decision-making and lawyer discipline. ”Disciplinary authorities typically focus on behavior directly related to the practice of law, or serious crimes that they believe sufficiently adversely affect a lawyer’s fitness to practice law. It’s not to say assault is not serious, because it is serious, but that is how the disciplinary counsel has decided to treat these issues.”
Karyl Carrasquilla, Connecticut’s chief disciplinary counsel, and Michael Bowler, bar counsel for the Statewide Grievance Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.
But Mark Dubois did. Dubois was the state’s first chief disciplinary counsel, and served in that position for seven and a half years, beginning in 2003. He is also past president of the Connecticut Bar Association, and practicing with Geraghty & Bonnano in New London.
Dubois said the #MeToo movement has put a much-needed spotlight on domestic abuse, but says the Merriam case does not rise to the level that will garner the attention of the chief disciplinary counsel.
“They will not typically look at misdemeanor domestic assaults,” Dubois said. “If it’s a first-time, one-off thing with minor injuries, there is no reason for the bar to get involved. They have limited resources and must prioritize and put their resources where there is the most threat to the public.”
If he were still in charge, Dubois said he’d open a file on Merriam “and put it in the pending file and check back in a few months to see what the court does.” But typically, for first offenses, the court will call for accelerated rehabilitation, or put the defendant on probation, he said.
Despite the outcry by advocates, ethics experts, such as Dubois, say the rules are adequate.
“In cases where there are serious family violence, the disciplinary committee will take action,” Dubois said. “There will be a criminal consequence and a collateral consequence in the disciplinary system.”
That’s what happened in the domestic abuse case involving John Farren. Farren was a Connecticut attorney and former White House lawyer who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2014 for the attempted murder of his wife in their New Canaan home. Several years before the judge sentenced Farren, the disciplinary counsel suspended him from practicing law for two decades.
But even supporters concede the counsel focuses primarily on theft by attorneys. Members will likely consider taking actions in cases involving felony convictions, but rarely act on misdemeanors.
But Jarmoc and other advocates want this to change.
“Is stealing money from someone more serious than physically assaulting your partner?” Jarmoc asked. “Domestic violence is a serious crime that literally impacts thousands of people in our state, and it should not matter if you are a lawyer, or a doctor or a teacher or a plumber. It’s simply not OK. Domestic violence can become highly dangerous and very volatile, and to downgrade it in any way, shape or form, is unacceptable.”