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).