IN RE SNYDER, 472 U. S. 634 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

In re Snyder, 472 U.S. 634 (1985)

In re Snyder

No. 84-310

Argued April 16, 1985

June 24, 1985

472 U.S. 634


Petitioner, who was appointed by the Federal District Court for the District of North Dakota to represent a defendant under the Criminal Justice Act (Act), was awarded almost $1,800 by the court for services and expenses in handling the assignment. As required by the Act with regard to expenditures for compensation in excess of $1,000, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reviewed the claim, found it to be insufficiently documented, and returned it with a request for additional documentation. Because of computer problems, petitioner could not readily provide the information in the requested form, but filed a supplemental application. The Chief Judge's secretary again returned the application, stating that petitioner's documentation was unacceptable; petitioner then discussed the matter with the District Judge's secretary, who suggested that he write a letter expressing his views. In October, 1983, petitioner wrote a letter to the District Judge's secretary in which (in an admittedly "harsh" tone) he declined to submit further documentation, refused to accept further assignments under the Act, and criticized the administration of the Act. Viewing the letter as seeking changes in the process for providing fees, the District Judge discussed those concerns with petitioner and then forwarded the letter to the Chief Judge. In subsequent correspondence with the District Judge, the Chief Judge of the Circuit stated, inter alia, that he considered petitioner's October letter to be "totally disrespectful to the federal courts and to the judicial system," and that, unless petitioner apologized, an order would be issued directing petitioner to show cause why he should not be suspended from practice in the Circuit. After petitioner declined to apologize, an order was issued directing petitioner to show cause why he should not be suspended for his "refusal to carry out his obligations as a practicing lawyer and officer of [the] court" because of his refusal to accept assignments under the Act; however, at the subsequent hearing, the Court of Appeals focused on whether petitioner's October letter was disrespectful, and petitioner again refused to apologize for the letter. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals suspended petitioner from the practice of law in the federal courts in the Circuit for six months, indicating that its action was based on petitioner's "refusal to show continuing respect for the court," and specifically finding that petitioner's "disrespectful statements" in his October letter as to the court's

Page 472 U. S. 635

administration of the Act constituted "contumacious conduct" rendering him "not presently fit to practice law in the federal courts."

Held: Petitioner's conduct and expressions did not warrant his suspension from practice. Pp. 472 U. S. 642-647.

(a) Under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 46, which sets forth the standard for disciplining attorneys practicing before the courts of appeals, an attorney may be suspended or disbarred if found guilty of "conduct unbecoming a member of the bar of the court." The quoted phrase must be read in light of the complex code of behavior to which attorneys are subject, reflecting the burdens inherent in the attorney's dual obligations to clients and to the system of justice. In this light, "conduct unbecoming a member of the bar" is conduct contrary to professional standards that shows an unfitness to discharge continuing obligations to clients or the courts, or conduct inimical to the administration of justice. Pp. 472 U. S. 642-645.

(b) Petitioner's refusal to submit further documentation in support of his fee request could afford a basis for declining to award a fee, but the record does not support the Court of Appeals' action suspending petitioner from practice; the submission of adequate documentation was only a prerequisite to the collection of his fee, not an affirmative obligation required by his duties to a client or the court. Nor, as the Court of Appeals ultimately concluded, was petitioner legally obligated under the terms of the local plan to accept cases under the Act. A lawyer's criticism of the administration of the Act or of inequities in assignments under the Act does not constitute cause for suspension; as officers of the court, members of the bar may appropriately express criticism on such matters. Even assuming that petitioner's October letter exhibited an unlawyerlike rudeness, a single incident of rudeness or lack of professional courtesy -- in the context here -- does not support a finding of contemptuous or contumacious conduct, or a finding that a lawyer is not presently fit to practice law in the federal courts; nor does it rise to the level of "conduct unbecoming a member of the bar" warranting suspension from practice. Pp. 472 U. S. 645-647.

734 F.2d 334, reversed.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined except BLACKMUN, J., who took no part in the decision of the case.

Page 472 U. S. 636

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