Casey Anthony Trial – Lessons in Courtroom Civility & Ethics
by Stephan Mihalovits
The Casey Anthony trial has drawn public interest on an international scale. A horrible tragedy resulted in a young life lost. The defendant mother is widely perceived as guilty. But despite global public interest and the seriousness of Caylee Anthony’s death, the trial and verdict in Florida provide more proof that attorneys oftentimes act unprofessionally to opposing counsel and against ethical guidelines, even when stakes are highest.
As trial commenced, Florida Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr. astutely ordered both sides to refrain from disparaging remarks throughout the contentious proceedings. But despite the order and public scrutiny, the lawyers abandoned their professional duty.
During the defense’s closing statements, attorney Jose Baez delivered his final remarks to the jury before they decided his client’s fate. As Baez spoke, prosecutor Jeff Ashton was seen smiling and laughing. Mr. Baez lashed back at “this laughing guy over here,” Mr. Ashton objected, and Judge Perry eventually reprimanded both sides.
It was just one more delay in the Casey Anthony trial happening just days after Judge Perry sentenced one spectator to jail time, fines and court costs for “flipping a bird” at an attorney.
Encouraging & Enforcing Legal Ethics & Civility
The California State Bar set ethical standards in writing in 2007 with California Attorney Guidelines of Civility and Professionalism. Though guidelines are not laws and are non-binding, attorneys who act in violation of the guidelines may find themselves subject to liability:
Leko v. Cornerstone Bldg. Inspection Service (2001): Attorneys who fail to confer with opposing counsel to resolve discovery issues may be fined, as was one of the attorneys in this case.
When opposing counsel failed to calendar a deposition and then tried twice to reschedule, the fined attorney responded with an insulting letter and then moved to compel depositions. The court fined this attorney for disregarding an obligation to informally resolve the matter; though it cited the insulting letter as relevant to the Court’s decision.
In the Matter of an Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar (2011): The U.S. Supreme Court got involved here, though only with a letter of caution. The Hearing Panel decided an attorney could be disciplined for activities that “pollute the administration of justice” or “bring the legal profession into disrepute.”
Perhaps the lines in this e-mail from the respondent, sent to opposing counsel in a family law matter, triggered the decision:
“I have a client who is a drug dealer on . . . Street down town [sic]. He informed me that your daughter, [redacted] was detained for buying cocaine and heroine [sic]. She is, or was, a teenager, right? This happened at night in a known high crime/drug area, where alos [sic] many shootings take place. Lucky for her and the two other teens, they weren’t charged. Does this make you and [redacted] bad parents? This incident is far worse than the allegations your client is making. I just thought it was ironic….”
Respondent tried to explain, pointing to “daily obnoxious, condescending, and harassing e-mails, faxes and hand-delivered letters” from opposing counsel.
The Lessons From Uncivil Discourse
So what have we learned from the Casey Anthony trial, Leko, and Anonymous? Whether handling matters in public or in private, attorneys who fail to act professionally risk facing real consequences.