Criminal defense lawyer who lost job after Judge's "high-handed," inappropriate conduct cannot sue
Robert W. Bright was hired to provide criminal defense counsel to indigent persons accused of crime in Gallia County, Ohio. He earned about $60,000.00 per year as a public defender, handling difficult felony cases, as many as 70 at any given time. Judge David Dean Evans was the sole Court of Common Pleas Judge for the County. As a public defender, Bright appeared in an action on behalf of a young man who had indicated a willingness to plead guilty to a reduced charge.
At the time of the plea-taking, however, the indigent defendant learned that he would go straight to prison without any opportunity to wrap up his home affairs and hesitated to enter the voluntary plea. Literally "mere seconds" later, the defendant indicated a willingness to accept the plea, but the Judge refused to allow it. Even though the prosecutor was willing to allow the [seconds-] late plea, the Judge rejected it on the ground that the plea agreement now violated his personal "drop dead date" for guilty pleas.
Bright filed a motion to compel the judge to accept the plea. In his motion, he described the judge's actions and "arbitrary and unreasonable" rule as unconscionable and an abuse of discretion. In response, the Judge filed a grievance against Bright with the Ohio bar association and removed him from the 70 felony cases in Evans' court. The Criminal Defense Corporation of the County then fired Bright. The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that Bright's appropriately zealous defense of his client did not warrant Evans' actions and that Judge Evans "failed to meet the minimum expectations for members of the judiciary." His conduct was "worthy of censure" and "high-handed" and "caused [the young attorney] great hardship."
Nevertheless, when Bright sued Evans and his employer for violating his right of free speech and due process, the Court held that he had no recourse against either of the Defendants. The Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court's dismissal of Bright's case, finding that the judge enjoyed absolute immunity from liability claims and his employing corporation could not be sued for violating Bright's constitutional and civil rights. It is bad enough that this young lawyer's appropriate efforts on behalf of a client have been punished with unemployment; imagine yourself needing a public defender in Evans' court today. Do you think the next Public Defender will jeopardize his or her employment by exercising the [ethically-demanded] zealous representation of your rights? This is the kind of story one expects to read about Chinese or Russian or Middle Eastern courts.