Mich. high court reinstates Geoffrey Fieger reprimand

By a 4-3 margin, the Supreme Court of Michigan has ruled that the First Amendment does not protect “the interests of an officer of the court in uttering vulgar epithets toward the court in a pending case” (decision in PDF format, p. 19) and has therefore sent back a case involving the disciplining of Geoffrey Fieger with instructions to reinstate the reprimand. After seeing a $15 million medical malpractice verdict overturned, Michigan’s most prominent plaintiff’s lawyer had described the appellate judges who ruled against him as variously “jackasses”, “Hitler”, “Goebbels” and “Eva Braun”, said that he was declaring war on them, said that they could kiss a portion of his anatomy not generally revealed in public, and repeatedly proposed that various objects be employed to assault a similar location on their persons.

In dissent, Justice Michael Cavanagh wrote that it matters not whether Fieger violated “a disciplinary rule he swore to obey when admitted to the practice of law”. The point is instead that “the judiciary, upon which is conferred unique powers, significant influence and considerable insulation, must not be so shielded that the public is denied its right to temper this institution”. Which raises at least one question: in what sense should Fieger be counted as a member of the “public” for these purposes? As a lawyer deputized with power to initiate compulsory process to drag unwilling parties into the Michigan courts, wouldn’t it be fair to say that “unique powers, significant influence and considerable insulation” have been conferred on him, too, in exchange for which he might reasonably be asked to submit to professional rules not applicable to the general public to guard against the abuse of these unique powers? (Dawson Bell, “Fieger reprimanded for attacks on judges”, Detroit Free Press, Jul. 31; Charlie Cain, “High court reinstates Fieger reprimand for comments”, Detroit News, Aug. 1).

We covered the controversy at hand (and its underlying lawsuit) Sept. 14, 1999, May 3, 2001, and Apr. 3, 2006. Other coverage of Fieger’s antics can be found here.

7 Comments

  • Maybe he’ll need to do more appearances with Greta on Fox to make up for the lost fees?

  • “As a lawyer deputized with power to initiate compulsory process to drag unwilling parties into the Michigan courts…”

    As all people are allowed to bring lawsuits in the state of Michigan, I’m not entirely sure how your statement is relevant. Certainly an attorney would know more about his or her “power to initiate compulsory process to drag unwilling parties into the Michigan courts.” But a non-lawyer would have the same power.

    I’m not saying I disagree with the ruling. No one has a right to be an attorney and an attorney should serve at the discretion of the bar. If an attorney doesn’t like the restrictions placed on his speech or behavior, he or she should quit.

  • Judges are government officials–they may be criticized by anyone. Full stop.

  • Attorneys are officers of the court. They indiscreetly speak out in public, about the courts they appear before and which have the unquestioned power to prescribe and enforce the ethical constraints of the profession, at their own peril. “Full stop.” (Note: The quoted term somehow has come into vogue in the profession, serving as a weak and conclusory substitute for reasoned analysis.)

  • I have to admit that I’m torn; I very much dislike seeing criticism of government officials being punishable (regardless of how offensive or ridiculous it is), but there are few things in the world that would make me happier than seeing Fieger get a good, hard, smackdown. I felt happy when I read the post, then felt bad about being happy.

  • So Jake, where’s the stopping point. Can I write about a botched court decision and state that the author obviously does not know the law? Can government officials punish people for speech?

    If you think about it, calling a judge “results oriented” is more harmful to the repute of the judiciary than the rantings of a nitwit like Fieger.

    Or what other rights do I give up. Can I advocate Leonard Jeffries attitudes about “ice people” and “sun people” and not get punished???

  • “So Jake, where’s the stopping point.”

    Um, how about not calling members of the bench Nazis unless they actually belong to a Nazi group or organization.

    “Can I write about a botched court decision and state that the author obviously does not know the law?”

    If you read the opinion you’d know the answer is “yes.”

    “Can government officials punish people for speech?”

    Well, they didn’t punish a person. They punished an attorney. There is no right to be an attorney in this country, you operate under the discretion of the state bar. Thus, if you don’t like the restrictions, you quit.

    And I’m not entirely sure I’d call the members of a state bar association “government officials,” but that’s a different matter.

    “Or what other rights do I give up.”

    Consult your state and local bar association for more information.

    “Can I advocate Leonard Jeffries attitudes about “ice people” and “sun people” and not get punished???”

    I have no idea what you’re talking about.