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AG: District courts have authority to sanction lawyers

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says district courts have the same authority to impose sanctions as circuit courts under both Virginia Code § 8.01-271.1 and their inherent authority to protect the public and the judicial process.

Cuccinelli reached that conclusion in an opinion requested by Barbara J. Gaden, chief judge of the Richmond General District Court.

Gaden expressed two concerns in her request: a pro se litigant with a history of filing harassing and frivolous litigation and individuals who engage in the unauthorized practice of law or attorneys who engage in unprofessional or unethical conduct.

She said she wants to be sure she has the authority to impose a requirement that the pro se litigant cannot file cases in her court without prior review by the court, a practice used frequently in federal court and, less commonly, state courts.

Gaden said she sought assurance that she can bar a lawyer or litigant from appearing in her court if she determines, after a hearing, that he or she has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law or unprofessional or unethical conduct.

Cuccinelli responded that § 8.01-271.1 is not limited to circuit courts so district courts have the authority to impose a pre-filing requirement under it.

Although the Supreme Court of Virginia has at times limited its discussion of the inherent authority of courts to courts of record, its rationale has been the need to protect and the courts. “The need to protect the public and the integrity of the judicial process is no less in district courts than in other courts,” Cuccinelli wrote.
By Alan Cooper

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