Friday, February 10, 2012

Is The Florida Supreme Court Done With Reinstating Felons To The Bar?

Here, the Board determined that no amount of rehabilitation would ever be sufficient to warrant readmitting Castro to the Bar. We agree.

Yesterday in a unanimous decision, the Florida Supreme Court told disbarred criminal defense lawyer William Castro he will never be admitted to the Bar. He can never reapply.

He wasn't told that when he was disbarred 18 years ago - he was told he was out for at least 10 years and then he could reapply. So in the last 18 years he's done about 13,000 hours of community service, adopted foster children, become a leader and mentor to people in our community, and displayed a serious commitment to rehabilitation.

It is clear that since his criminal conviction and disbarment, Castro has engaged in thousands of hours of community service, benefiting both his church and the legal community as a whole, in an effort to show his rehabilitation. While his commitment to community service is admirable, we agree with the Board’s conclusion that no demonstration of rehabilitation would ever suffice to allow Castro’s readmission to the legal profession.

That he had judges and lawyers speak for him at his reinstatement hearing doesn't tell the full story. Two of the judges that spoke for him are no nonsense former prosecutors. He also had a former Florida Supreme Court Justice, one of the most conservative while on the bench, encourage the Board of Bar Examiners to recommend readmission.

On the one hand, the conduct giving rise to this petition clearly undermines the public’s trust in the judicial system. On the other hand, as former Justice Raoul Cantero testified, William Castro’s case is ―one where [he has] seen more rehabilitation over a greater period of time than any other case.‖ Indeed, it was not just Raoul Cantero who testified on Castro’s behalf. Castro submitted letters from 190 individuals and presented many witnesses who testified in favor of his readmission to the Florida Bar, all setting forth specific examples of how he has demonstrated extraordinary conduct.

The Board declined. The reason? his prior conduct. He gave about $77,000 in kickbacks to a judge for appointing him to cases, 64 in total. A lot of cases, a lot of money. While there was no evidence he did anything less than a professional job for the clients, this type of conduct, resulting in a federal indictment and criminal conviction, strikes at the heart of our justice system. No argument there.

But they gave him a path. Out for a minimum of 10 years. He wasn't permanently disbarred (meaning no ability to reapply.) He was told there was a process - reapply and show by clear and convincing evidence that you've rehabilitated yourself and we'll consider it.

But did they?

The evidence established that Castro logged over 13,000 hours of community service during the past eighteen years—equivalent to an impressive 700 hours of service per year. He has volunteered for the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program, where he has been described as a wonderful asset. The Senior Staff Attorney of the criminal court’s GAL program recounted several different cases on which Castro served. She believed that Castro’s efforts in one GAL case saved a child’s life and further described him as a relentless advocate and meticulous. Castro is also a licensed foster-care parent, and he and his wife later adopted each of the three children they had fostered. The judge who approved the adoptions described how she grew to admire and respect Willie and had no doubt that he would be a very positive member of the Bar.‖ Castro has led CLE seminars in which he has taken accountability for what he has done. One witness who previously worked with Castro in organizing a seminar involving ethics and the law stated that during the time she has known him, Castro made her want to be a better lawyer. Another witness testified as to his service to the community, and especially to children, describing him as a person that is just doing everything that he can to be able to give to people, to give of himself, of his time, of his talent, and to really make a difference in people’s lives. Further, Castro has organized programs for migrant children, and one witness testified that these migrant children wouldn’t have anything or much if it wasn’t for the efforts that Willie Castro had done. By all accounts, Castro has lived an exemplary life since his criminal charges, felony convictions, and prison sentence. Based on what I perceive to be overwhelming evidence of his rehabilitation, I would state that Castro has demonstrated all seven elements of rehabilitation required by Rule 3-13 of the Bar Admission Rules for admission when the applicant has previously engaged in disqualifying conduct

The conduct was what caused the 10 year disbarment. While it's relevant to why he was disbarred, if that is the reason he can't get back in, why give him an opportunity? Why let this man believe for all these years that there was a possibility?

I understand, that was then, the Court is now. Things change, minds change, Bar standards tighten, but if nothing this man did for the last 18 years matters to the Board or the Supreme Court, then the concept of redemption doesn't exist.

The issue for reinstatement is both what is disqualifying (disbarment) and whether there is sufficient evidence of rehabilitation. Castro beat the world on the second part - he had to - his conduct was criminal, and not just garden variety criminal, but the type that is at the heart of our profession.

But everyone knew that when they kicked him out, and they didn't tell him then - that no matter what he did - he was never getting in.

A few years ago there was a commission set up to review the Bar Admission process in Florida. Two issues that were recommend were 1. that no felons be eligible for admission, and 2. that all disbarments be permanent.

They didn't pass. On the felon issue, the Board of Bar Examiners wanted to retain their power to determine admission of convicted felons on a case by case basis. Remember that a felony is murder, rape, robbery, and in Florida, also a 3rd DUI, driving on a habitual drivers license suspension, and stealing anything over $300, to name a few. The point being that Florida has expanded its list of felonious conduct to things that may not necessarily be considered disqualifying for admission to the Bar. The Board didn't want a hard-and-fast rule.

But now we have the Castro decision, one that will cause other disbarred lawyers to wonder if their 5 year or 10 year disbarment is really that. One that will cause us to wonder whether the concept of rehabilitation for Bar admission is irrelevant for any convicted felon. One that causes me to ask whether it's more humane to tell a lawyer he has no future with the bar, at the time of his disbarment.

I just wonder if Castro wishes he would have been permanently disbarred.

He was, actually.

Anonymous comments are welcome as long as they say something relevant and half-way intelligent and aren't a vehicle for a coward to attack someone. I trust you understand.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Tony Moss said...

Hey Brian . . . thanks for your cogent assessment. I was one of those 190 people who wrote on Willie's behalf, and it sickens me to realize that the concept of rehabilitation no longer carries any weight in the disciplinary process. This may not be a sad day for Willie himself--he certainly has displayed a sense of grace and acceptance that we all could envy--but it truly is a sad day for those of us for whom the concept of redemption still means something.

Aaron said...

Over the past few years, I've spoken to or heard lectures from at least 4 former or current Florida Supreme Court justices. Each time, they've made a point to discuss how the press has no impact on their deliberations, how they're insulated and how sacred their duty is. Call me cynical, but I don't buy it. They are not immune from feeling popular and political pressure to be tough on lawyers, and this just about seals it. If Justice Cantero, a beacon of professionalism and a really good guy, can't convince them to let this guy in, well, then redemption is truly dead in Florida.

Thanks for the write-up.