September 2006Volume 8Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Ethics corner: recent discipline of public sector lawyers and related ABA formal opinion

Recent disciplinary orders from the Illinois Supreme Court have included sanctions entered against two public sector attorneys. A brief description of these cases follows, and more information may be obtained through the ARDC Web site,, at “Rules and Decisions.”

In In re Wade Franklin Morris Sr., Commission No. 02 CH 48, Ill. S. Ct. No. M.R. 20753 (order entered March 21, 2006; suspension effective April 11, 2006), the attorney was suspended from the practice of law for nine months for misconduct that included, in part, actions that he took while he was a part-time assistant public defender. As pertinent to his public sector employment, Morris initially represented Gail and Ronnie Stewart in a bankruptcy matter, which was completed in October 1998. In July 1999, Gail Stewart was charged with resisting arrest and obstruction of a police officer, and Morris, who was then employed as an assistant public defender, was appointed to represent her. He appeared in court on Gail’s behalf in connection with four criminal matters between July and December 1999. In September 1999, Morris was retained by Ronnie Stewart to file a petition for dissolution of his marriage to Gail, and Morris concluded that representation in January 2000. The ARDC’s Hearing Board, in a report that was approved and confirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court, found that Morris engaged in a conflict of interests in his representation of the Stewarts.

In addition to this conflict, Morris was found to have engaged in misconduct while in a meeting with Gail in his office in August 2000, to discuss the criminal matters that were still pending against her. During that meeting, Morris exposed himself to Gail and attempted to have sexual relations with her, telling her that she could either serve jail time, or not serve jail time; she understood this comment to mean that her reaction to his advances would control the outcome of her criminal cases. The Hearing Board concluded that, by this conduct, Morris committed a battery against Gail, engaged in a conflict of interests, breached his fiduciary duty to Gail, and failed to withdraw from employment when his continued representation would result in a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

In In re Jeanne Lee Sathre, Commission No. 05 SH 95, S. Ct. No. M.R. 20832 (order entered May 16, 2006), the attorney was censured by the Illinois Supreme Court. She was under contract to provide public defender services for Edgar and Clark Counties, where she had sole responsibility for case loads that grew from 60 to 70 cases up to more than 400 cases per year during her tenure as public defender. In that capacity, she neglected the appeals of two clients who were the subject of proceedings to terminate their parental rights, and both appeals were dismissed by the appellate court. She resigned as the public defender for both counties in December 2005.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has recently addressed the ethical obligations of public defenders faced with burgeoning case loads. On May 13, 2006, the ABA issued Formal Opinion 06-441, setting forth that organization’s views of public defenders’ obligations to avoid acceptance of excessive workloads that prevent the competent and diligent representation of their clients. The opinion details the obligation of an attorney not to accept new cases that will compromise her ability to provide competent representation to existing clients, including the requirements to work with supervisors to manage case load responsibilities and to ask the courts to refrain from assigning additional matters or to grant permission to withdraw from cases that cannot be handled competently or diligently. The opinion does recognize the possibility that a court may deny a motion to withdraw, in which case the public defender “must obey the court’s order while taking all steps reasonably feasible to insure that her client receives competent and diligent representation.”

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