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‘Notre Dame 88’ lawyer cleared in discipline case

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An attorney who argued that a judge’s bias warranted her recusal from a case involving pro-life students arrested for protesting the announcement of President Barack Obama’s appearance at the University of Notre Dame was cleared of disciplinary charges Tuesday.

The Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling in In the Matter of: Thomas M. Dixon, 71S00-1104-DI-196, held that Thomas Dixon’s arguments for recusal “are relevant to, and indeed required for, the relief sought.”

Dixon represented more than 80 people arrested on the South Bend campus in 2009 who objected to the announcement that Obama would speak at Notre Dame and receive an honorary degree. The collective defendants came to be known as “the Notre Dame 88” and the charges against them ultimately were dropped.

But before that, their consolidated trespass case was assigned to St. Joseph Superior Judge Jenny Pitts Manier, whose husband is a retired Notre Dame professor who Dixon noted in his petition for recusal had advocated for pro-choice causes. Dixon also noted a prior ruling by Manier against a pro-life protester that was reversed on appeal.   

The Disciplinary Commission focused on four statements Dixon made in court filings that it said violated the rule regarding attorney speech, Rule 8.2(a). The rule states, “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”

“The Court concludes that none of the statements at issue, which (Dixon) made in support of his Motion for Change of Judge, violated Indiana Professional Conduct Rule 8.2(a), considering the entire context in which the statements were made, including Respondent’s supporting facts. We therefore enter judgment in favor of Respondent,” four justices wrote in a per curiam opinion.

Just three of the statements made by Dixon were considered by the court. They were:

  • Judge Manier’s inability to separate the college’s mission from her husband’s professional mission “calls into profound question her ability to navigate the waters of defendants’ legal defenses”;
  • That in applying an injunction in a prior ruling, Manier either didn’t understand Indiana Trial Rule 65 “or she did not feel duty bound to apply the rule because she was biased in favor of the abortuary”; and
  • That in refusing to allow a party Dixon represented to intervene in a case, the ruling “demonstrates to me that she was willing to ignore the applicable legal standards in order to move the case in a direction that negatively affected (his client’s) legal rights.”

Justice Robert Rucker dissented and would have sanctioned the statements. “I agree with the hearing officer that Respondent’s ‘comments went beyond legal argument, they became personal, and violate current professional standards.’”

Manier filed the grievance against Dixon and ultimately recused herself from the case, according to the record.
 


 

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  • NYT v Sullivan would have been better for us but...
    Carlos, I too like the subjective test better since we are talking about ethics here and ethics should take the actual thought process into account. However it does simplify the job of the court and it obviously contemplates that there are going to be a lot more beefs against lawyers in the future and they're prolly taking the opportunity to make their job easier. I read the decision and I assumed that the prosecutor has a to make a case that it was objectively unreasonable. I mean they cant seriously think they just allege remarks are unreasonable and then not introduce any evidence to support it and pass it to the defendant to try and rebut. I cant imagine that. But then again what do I know, the whole trend of punishing lawyer free speech has surprised me for the two decades time it has been accelerating
  • Next Question
    What this decision seems to be left unsaid, however, is whether the Comm'n bears the burden of showing whether the atty lacked the "objectively reasonable basis for making the statement" or whether the atty bears the burden of showing whether he HAD the "objectively reasonable basis for making the statement." I'd think it's the former but am not 100% sure since the Comm'n can't peer into the atty's mind and determine what said "reasonable basis" may have been.
    • good outcome
      Absolutely right decision. Dixon's motion was sound and effective advocacy and his assertions were backed by facts. it turns out truth is a defense I guess. Now the complaint against the other lawyer involved should be dismissed. What they did was excellent advocacy and by standing up and defending themselves they have defended all of us too. In the future judges should think twice before going after lawyers like this and consider if the outcome wont prove the point; ie, kind of like yanking the proverbial evidentiary harpoon in and out of the wound again and again.
    • Congrats to Tom Dixon
      Indiana attorneys owe Tom Dixon a debt of gratitude for standing up to a system bent on ending zealous advocacy and silencing dissent. This victory should be a banner story here, but it is not, likely due to pressure from the losing statists.

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