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Court split in public defender 'firm' issue

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In a disciplinary action released Wednesday by the Indiana Supreme Court, the justices disagreed as to whether two public defenders who worked part time in the same public defender office of Putnam County were "associated in a firm."

James R. Recker was charged by the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission for violating Indiana Professional Conduct Rules 1.6(a), 1.8(b), and 1.8(k), which deal with revealing information relating to representation of a client without informed consent and prohibitions that apply to an attorney in one firm apply to all attorneys in the firm.

Recker and Laura Paul worked as part-time public defenders in Putnam County and shared office space provided by the county. Recker was appointed to represent A.B. in a CHINS proceeding, who was sharing a holding cell with X.Y., who Paul was appointed to represent. A.B. also had a private attorney, James Holder, for a criminal case. When Paul learned from the Putnam County prosecutor that her client would offer up some details in A.B.'s criminal case in exchange for a deal, she spoke with Recker about her situation because she hadn't experienced it before and mentioned A.B.'s name but not her client's name. She didn't know Recker was representing A.B.; Recker thought her client was a private client.

Recker then called Holder and told him A.B. was talking about his case. Paul's client was eventually removed from the shared cell and testified at A.B.'s murder trial.

In In the matter of James R. Recker, No. 49S00-0506-DI-302, the majority determined Recker didn't commit the charged attorney misconduct because he and Paul weren't members of a law firm while providing indigent defense services in the county. Because they weren't associated in the same firm, Recker didn't owe a duty to X.Y. when he told Holder the information he learned from Paul. The majority examined the definition of and comments related to "law firm" under the Professional Conduct Rules and its ruling in Matter of Sexson, 613 N.E.2d 841 (Ind. 1993), to support its decision. Although they shared common space, staff, letterhead, and a phone line, Recker and Paul didn't choose that situation as provided by the county and didn't hold themselves out for business to the public at the public defender office location.

The majority noted there is no uniform system of providing indigent defense among Indiana's counties, but under the Putnam County system, they aren't deemed to be members of a firm, "at least for the purpose of the rule that information acquired by one lawyer in a firm is attributed to another," the per curium opinion stated.

Justice Frank Sullivan dissented because he believed the majority employed an "overly technical" and "near-sighted" definition of "firm" and lost sight of the principal interest at stake: the inviolability of client confidences.

Under the majority's opinion, Sullivan argued that if Recker overheard a conversation between Paul and one of her clients, he would have no ethical obligation to keep the information confidential. The justice questioned how the hallmark of trust of the client-lawyer relationship can exist if the lawyer in the next cubicle can reveal that client's secrets simply because the lawyers aren't technically in the same "firm."

Sullivan believed that Recker had an ethical duty to keep confidential the client information disclosed to him by Paul and for that, he violated rules 1.6(a) and 1.8(k).

The Supreme Court expressed no opinion about whether Paul violated her duty to X.Y. because that issue wasn't before the court.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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