Montana Justices: Attorney Discipline Cases Should be Public

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – When attorneys are sanctioned for professional misconduct, the reason should be made public, several Montana Supreme Court justices have decided.

“If the system is going to discipline an attorney, that should be public,” Justice James Nelson said. “I think we should do away with this whole process of private discipline.”

Nelson and fellow justices Brian Morris and Pat Cotter met Friday as part of an informal working group, which decided that details of formal disciplinary actions should be made public. They said new court-sanctioned rules could allow for a private, formal warning of attorneys who commit minor misconduct.

The group was created after Moira D’Alton, a former assistant city attorney in Billings, was disciplined privately. The Billings Gazette sued to obtain more information about what rules of professional misconduct she violated. The Supreme Court ruled that information could not be made public under current rules, but also appointed a working group to consider whether to change the rules.

Disciplinary Counsel Shaun Thompson, whose office investigates complaints of attorney misconduct, said private admonitions allow the Commission on Practice to resolve cases without filing a more time-consuming formal complaint with the Supreme Court.

“If we do away with private admonitions, it would significantly add to our workload, and we’d need more staff,” Thompson said.

Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney representing The Gazette, said he feels “very strongly that whenever a lawyer does something that merits discipline, they’ve crossed the line and that should be made public.”

The other members of the panel are Dillon attorney John Warren, chairman of the Commission on practice; John Barrows, executive director of the Montana Newspaper Association and Chris Manos of the State Bar of Montana.

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