Constitutional Right to be a Jackass

One of our profession’s enfants terribles, Geoffrey Fieger, is back in court, this time defending his right to call Michigan appellate judges who ruled against him “jackasses” and “nazis.”

Fieger faces a reprimand from the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission for insulting three state appellate judges on a radio talk show in 1999 after the judges overturned a $15 million verdict he won in a medical malpractice case.

Fieger’s lawyer, Michael Alan Schwartz, maintaining that Fieger’s comments outside the courtroom are protected by the First Amendment.

Summing up Fieger’s modus operandi nicely, Schwartz offers this:

“There’s no law that says you’ve got to be dignified.”

He also offers Standing Committee on Discipline v. Yagman, 55 F.3d 1430 and Craig v. Harney, 331 U. S. 367 (1947) to support his client’s right to criticize the judges.

UPDATE: Sorry folks, I neglected to include a link to the story. It is the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission seeking to reprimand him. The Commission is “the investigative and prosecutorial arm of the Michigan Supreme Court for allegations of attorney misconduct.”

7 Comments

  • Fieger’s lawyer, Michael Alan Schwartz…

    I know lawyers hire other lawyers, but to a layman like myself, it still seems funny.

    Ah, Jeffrey Fieger: one of the few things I don’t miss about my years living in Michigan…

  • Of course Fieger hired a lawyer to defend him. If he was defending himself, he’d just insult the judge again.

  • If it’s the State of Michigan reprimanding him, I think that would be an interesting case, and it might well turn out in his favor…

    BUT

    He’s a lawyer, licensed BY the state to practice, which puts him in interesting territory.

    Now, if it’s the BAR association reprimanding him, well, I think he’s currently speaking out the wrong end.

  • The courts are supposed to balance the First Amendment with the state bar’s right to keep attorneys in line. I’d side with free speech on this one, but attorneys usually exercise extreme caution in talking publicly about judges, if for no other reason than self-interest: they appear before them.

  • I find it amusing that Feiger’s lawyer cites the 9th circuit case in defense of his position — the case involves the upholding of disbarment against a lawyer who repeatedly accused judges of being crooked, etc. The Court made note of the falsity of the factual claims there — Craig v. Harney would seem to support Feiger’s case as well.

    So it appears that Feiger’s comments, while insulting and indecorous, are likely protected nonetheless.

    Chalk one up to the esteem of the profession!

  • If he actually used the term “Nazis,” that would not be protected speech, as it is defamatory. You have a right to be a jerk, and to call other people jerks and other rude names, but not to slander. “Nazi” is a very specific allegation, and no different than if he had called the judges “child molesters” or “murderers.”

    And even if calling judges “Nazis” was generally protected speech, it certainly wouldn’t be insulated from reprimand. Attorneys are held to a higher standard of decorum than laymen, and if the local Board wants to slap his wrists for being rude to judges, it can certainly do so.

  • […] judge, as by provoking recusal. For an extreme instance, see the Geoffrey Fieger episode recounted here, here, here, and here. More on what lawyers can say about judges from Bruce Campbell (Campbell […]