U.S. Justice Dept backs prosecutors accused of ethics breach

3 minute read

The crest of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) at their headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • DOJ jumps into ethics case to resist sanction for two former D.C. federal prosecutors.
  • Bar disciplinary board recommended six-month suspension for allegedly violating evidence disclosure rule.

(Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has stepped into an attorney ethics fight in Washington, D.C., to defend two federal prosecutors who face a six-month suspension over claims by local bar regulators that they concealed evidence from defense lawyers in a criminal case 12 years ago.

The Justice Department has urged the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest local court in Washington and which oversees attorney discipline, to reverse an attorney conduct board's recommended suspension for Mary Dobbie and Reagan Taylor. DOJ's brief, which has not been previously reported, was filed late last month.

Dobbie and Taylor were assistant U.S. attorneys in the District of Columbia assigned to the prosecution of an assault case stemming from a 2007 melee at a jail. Dobbie has since moved to the Justice Department's main office and Taylor is a federal prosecutor in Tennessee.

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The D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility in January recommended the sanction after finding Dobbie and Taylor violated a bar rule that governs the obligation of prosecutors to reveal exculpatory information. The prosecutors have denied acting in bad faith and instead said they made mistakes that resulted in an incomplete disclosure about a key law enforcement witness.

Timothy Simeone of the Washington boutique Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, who represents Dobbie, didn't respond to a request for comment. And Taylor's lawyer, Alex Little, a partner at Burr & Forman in Nashville, Tennessee, declined to comment, as did the board's chairman, Matthew Kaiser of Washington's KaiserDillon.

DOJ's submission of an amicus brief, marks a new clash between the United States and the D.C. office of disciplinary counsel, the regulator enforcing attorney conduct provisions in the nation's capital. The responsibility board weighs cases brought by the disciplinary counsel, and the appeals court has the final word.

The disciplinary counsel's office has long asserted a role in policing the conduct of federal prosecutors in Washington, home to Justice Department headquarters and to the largest U.S. attorney's office in the country.

Central to the dispute is the scope of a D.C. bar rule that says a prosecutor cannot "intentionally fail to disclose" beneficial information.

The Justice Department's brief said bar authorities must prove prosecutors acted in "bad faith" in circumstances where evidence was allegedly suppressed or not turned over in time for defense lawyers to make any use of it during a criminal proceeding. DOJ's brief was signed by Channing Phillips, the acting U.S. attorney for D.C., and Stacy Ludwig, director of a professional responsibility office at the Justice Department.

The bar disciplinary counsel, Hamilton Fox, said the attorney-conduct rule at issue — 3.8(e) — "does not contain a bad faith element, and it would be bad policy to incorporate one."

Fox told the appeals court that "violations are easy to avoid: just disclose."

The case has attracted interest from third-parties including public defenders and an advocacy group representing views of current and former federal prosecutors.

"Overly aggressive interpretations of ethical requirements in particular can impose real costs," Munger, Tolles & Olson's Donald Verrilli Jr told the court on behalf of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. "Such an approach risks systemic unfairness to prosecutors" who often must make difficult judgment calls "with insufficient time for full consideration or extended reflection."

The case is In re: Reagan Taylor and In re: Mary Chris Dobbie, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, No. 21-BG-024.

For plaintiffs: Hamilton Fox of D.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel

For Dobbie: Timothy Simeone of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis

For Taylor: Alex Little of Burr & Forman

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