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.