Joel Joseph may be suing the World Trade Organization and the United States government to allow for more disclosure about what country meat comes from, but he’s had some geographic problems of his own when it comes to practicing law – specifically his status as a resident of Bethesda, Md. 

The founder of the non-profit Made in the USA Foundation, Inc., Joseph filed suit in Colorado federal court in November seeking to overturn a WTO decision about how meat from Mexico and Canada is labeled.

But last week, Senior District Judge Richard Matsch disqualified him as counsel. The move stems from Joseph’s disbarment in Maryland for allegedly misrepresenting his residency status and his and subsequent suspension by the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Joseph in an interview said he has hired counsel to reinstate his bar membership in Maryland and called the disbarment “ridiculous and outrageous.”

In the meantime, he said the suit challenging the WTO will go on without him. “We’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to,” he said. “The WTO has no authority to overrule U.S. law.” He added that he is now interviewing other counsel to take his place in the suit, brought on behalf of groups including the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, the United Stockgrowers Association and cattle producers in South Dakota, Wyoming and Washington. “It’s an extremely important case,” he said.

Joseph, who earned his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1973, was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1981 and founded Made in the USA in 1989, which is dedicated to promoting products manufactured or assembled in the U.S.

His bar problems arose in 2007, when he contacted a solo practitioner in Santa Monica and said he was looking for a local lawyer to act as co-counsel for cases filed in California courts and to sponsor his admission as a non-resident attorney to appear pro hac vice, according to court papers.

California does not offer bar reciprocity with other states – the only way to be a member of the California bar is to pass the state’s (notoriously difficult) bar exam.

Joseph filed several applications in 2007 to appear in California courts. Under penalty of perjury, he reported that his office was in Bethesda, and that he did not live in California. When pressed for his residential address, he listed a location on Hampden Lane in Bethesda that was later determined to be a UPS store where his mail was received. (Ironically, Joseph wasn’t actually required to obtain admission to appear pro hac vice – he could have just been listed as out-of-state counsel.)

During roughly the same time period that he filed the applications, Joseph also allegedly leased an apartment in Santa Monica, got a California driver’s license and registered his car there, opened a local bank account and rented office space. He paid California income taxes in 2008 and 2009, and none in Maryland. However, he was still registered to vote in Maryland.

“The issue at the heart of this matter is whether Respondent was candid and/or truthful when he represented to the California Courts that he was not a resident of California for purposes of the rules governing admission to the Courts in which he sought to practice,” the seven judges of the Court of Appeals of Maryland found in an October 2011 opinion ordering his disbarment. “Respondent’s conduct in this case lacked candor, was dishonest, misleading, prejudicial to the administration of justice, and beyond excuse. There are no mitigating circumstances.”

After the Maryland decision, the Ohio Supreme Court in October 2012 issued an order directing Joseph to “immediately cease and desist from the practice of law in any form” and instructed him to file a notice of disqualification with courts where he was involved in ongoing litigation.

When Joseph failed to file such a notice in Colorado where the WTO meat case is pending, Timothy Jafek, an assistant U.S. attorney in Denver who is representing the U.S. government, brought it to the court’s attention.

Joseph protested that Ohio is reconsidering his suspension, and argued that the matter should be decided by the Colorado court’s disciplinary panel, not the judge.

“No clients were harmed by any alleged misconduct,” he wrote, and he blamed his co-counsel in Santa Monica for reporting him to the bar because Joseph “objected to him being paid for not doing his fair share of work….In fact, Mr. Joseph was a citizen of Maryland and registered voter in Maryland at the time in question and certainly had a good-faith reason to claim Maryland residence.”

Joseph also argued that the case is “exceptionally important…It may be an unpopular case in some circles as plaintiffs are suing the United States of America. This is all the more reason to allow Mr. Joseph to represent plaintiffs.”

The plaintiffs want the U.S. to defy a 2012 WTO appellate decision that found the Country of Origin Labeling Act to be an illegal trade barrier to imported livestock and meat. The law requires retailers to provide country of origin labeling for a range of food. If a cow, for example, was raised in Mexico but slaughtered in the U.S., the label would indicate that it was “A product of Mexico and the U.S.”

The WTO ruled that the law had a “detrimental impact on imported livestock” because its recordkeeping and verification requirements are burdensome and create an incentive to use strictly domestic animals. If a country does not comply with a WTO decision, the body may authorize retaliatory trade sanctions.

In the complaint challenging the WTO ruling, Joseph wrote that the labeling law is supported by 93 percent of American consumers, and that it “was passed to give consumers information about where agricultural products came from. Consumers could choose not to buy raspberries from Guatemala because of a bacterial problem there, or could refuse to buy Canadian beef because of a Mad Cow disease problem there.”

Joseph also protested that one of the three WTO judges who decided the appeal was from Mexico – what Joseph calls “an obvious conflict of interest.” He added, “We need a WTO, but one with a legitimate judiciary.”

As of now, though, he won’t be the one making the case in Colorado. In an order issued January 11, Matsch disqualified him, writing that under Colorado rules, “An attorney who is not in good standing with all courts in which he has been admitted shall not practice before this court.”

Contact Jenna Greene at jgreene@alm.com.