ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri residents can now obtain more information about disciplinary actions against attorneys under investigation for legal misconduct.
A state Supreme Court order that took effect Sunday grants public access to misconduct cases when the state Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel files a disciplinary charge with an advisory panel - but only after the attorney has responded.
Previously, public access was allowed only when the disciplinary office filed an administrative charge with the Supreme Court, which oversees attorney discipline in the state. Missouri also is developing rules to let citizens attend attorney disciplinary hearings or review hearing transcripts. Forty other states have similar rules.
The new rule also allows people to find out when the high court issues written admonitions, the least severe sanction available. Such warnings were previously pulled from the public after three years.
"Citizens have a right to expect a high level of professional service from their lawyers," Missouri Chief Justice Richard B. Teitelman said when the rule changes were announced in March. "We realize it is important for the public to know if an attorney is facing disciplinary action, even before the case might get to this court."
On Monday, the state's Legal Ethics Counsel released the names of 28 attorneys with pending disciplinary hearings. The list can be found at www.mo-legal-ethics.org .
Lawyers who oppose the release of their disciplinary files can still petition for protective orders that would seal their records. Should the state Supreme Court dismiss its initial finding - known in court parlance as an "information" - the attorney under scrutiny can also seek to close those records. That provision is also in place should the eight-member advisory panel recommend dismissal of an information and the state's chief disciplinary counsel agrees.
The broader disclosure rules also require the state to publicize sanctions in The Missouri Bar's bimonthly journal as well as local newspapers where the sanctioned attorney practices. The state also must alert the presiding judge in the judicial circuit where the offending attorney is based.
The changes follow an American Bar Association report several years ago that advised Missouri to open up its attorney disciplinary process to further public scrutiny.
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier