California Bar Races to Enact “Rat” Rule 8.3

The California State Bar’s Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) spent most of its meeting on Friday January 13 drafting a California version of ABA Model Rule 8.3. Model Rule 8.3, entitled “Reporting Professional Misconduct” has been referred to as the “rat” or “squeal” Rule. It says:

(a) A lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects, shall inform the appropriate professional authority. …

(c) This Rule does not require disclosure of information otherwise protected by Rule 1.6 or information gained by a lawyer or judge while participating in an approved lawyers assistance program.

California, alone among United States jurisdictions, has no version of Rule 8.3. When California’s Rules of Professional Conduct were revised between 2014-2018, consideration was given to adopting a version of Rule 8.3, but a subcommittee of the rules revision commission voted not to recommend its adoption (see Carr – Model Rule 8.3: The Argument Against.) The subcommittee explained its reasoning this way:

On balance, the members of the drafting team agree with the Board’s prior decision not to recommend a reporting requirement. The pros of adopting a reporting requirement (whether in the mandatory form of ABA MR 8.3 or a hybrid permissive/mandatory form along the lines of RRC1’s proposed rule) include:

1. improving public protection by requiring lawyer reporting of certain known violations of the rules that raise a substantial question about a lawyer’s “honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer;” and

2. bringing California’s rules more in line with the ABA Model Rules.

There are also significant cons to a reporting requirement; either the Model Rule or RRC1 hybrid approach would:

1. require a lawyer to determine whether a known violation raises a substantial question as to (or implicates) the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer;

2. despite the recognition that reporting could be trumped by the duty of confidentiality with respect to information learned in the course of representation of a client, pose a potential for conflict with that rule, or with the attorney-client relationship, to the extent lawyers might feel obligated to discuss waiver of confidentiality to further the reporting interests of the lawyer rather than the client’s own interests;

3. pose a potential for conflicts with a lawyer’s duty of loyalty if reporting posed a risk of adversely affecting a current or former client’s interests; and

4. potentially be viewed as inconsistent with the discretionary reporting policy reflected in Canon 3D(2) of the California Code of Judicial Ethics that states: “Whenever a judge has personal knowledge, or concludes in a judicial decision, that a lawyer has committed misconduct or has violated any provision of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the judge shall take appropriate corrective action, which may include reporting the violation to the appropriate authority.” (Emphasis added.)

On balance, the drafting team agrees that the cons outweigh the pros, particularly given that California has never had such a reporting requirement, and that the analysis required for lawyers to determine the scope of any reporting requirement seems inconsistent with this Commission’s charge to retain the historical nature of the California Rules as a “clear and enforceable articulation of disciplinary standards.”

Oh, the carefree days of our (relative) youth!

The Girardi Scandal broke in December 2020 and since then the days of the State Bar of California have not been carefree (see Kafkaesq: The Widening Gyre of Girardi-Gate), especially after the State Bar admitted that it had made mistakes in handling the many complaints against Girardi. Notable is the way the Los Angeles Times has not only covered the story but is driving story, including filing an action in the California Supreme Court to push the State Bar into disclosing the Girardi files. On October 28, 2022, the Los Angeles Times published a story on California’s lack of a rule requiring attorneys to report misconduct (“When It Comes to Crooked Colleagues, California Attorneys Can Remain Silent“). Within weeks, the push was on the enact a California version of Rule 8.3. That push gained enormous momentum when California Senator Tom Umberg, chair of the Judiciary Committee, introduced Senate Bill 42, which would add new section 6090.8 to the California Business and Professions Code:

6090.8. (a) A licensee of the State Bar who knows that another licensee has engaged in professional misconduct that raises a substantial question as to that licensee’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as an attorney in other respects, shall inform the State Bar. (b) This section does not require disclosure of information otherwise protected by the attorney-client privilege or information gained by a licensee while participating in the Attorney Diversion and Assistance Program.

SB 42 seems a transparent move to force the Supreme Court (with the help of its administrative arm, the State Bar of California) to enact Rule 8.3. Pronto! And it is working. The proposed version of Rule 8.3 that COPRAC drafted in real time on Friday January 13 will be put out for a truncated 30 days public comment period and then moved directly on the Board of Trustees agenda for approval, rather than allowing COPRAC to follow its regular procedure of evaluating the public comment and refining its work product. The short public comment period will make it difficult for local bar associations, who work slowly, typically requiring their legal ethics committees to evaluate proposals first, to offer public comment. And everyone is signaling that something had to put in place quickly before the Legislature imposes its own, poorly thought-out statute on the State Bar and the lawyers of California. It seems hard to imagine that the California Supreme Court will say no.

One of the flaws in Model Rule 8.3 as noted by the drafting committee in 2016 is that successful prosecution requires the discipline authority to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the attorney knew a complex thing: that another lawyer has (1) violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and (2) that the violation raises a substantial question as to the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer. As a result there have not been a lot of prosecutions for failure to report. Rule 8.3 is not likely to have a substantial impact on public protection. It would have had no impact on the Girardi matter; the (as framed by the media coverage, without first hand knowledge) problem was not that the State Bar of California did not know, but that it knew but did nothing

But it really isn’t about public protection. It is about public confidence in the State Bar of California. By enacting Rule 8.3, the State Bar demonstrates that it is doing something, even if that something is not particularly helpful.