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Supreme Court upholds Morrissey disbarment

Peter Vieth//July 18, 2019

Supreme Court upholds Morrissey disbarment

Peter Vieth//July 18, 2019

In a unanimous order, the Supreme Court of Virginia has upheld the second disbarment of former state delegate Joseph D. Morrissey. A three-judge Richmond Circuit Court panel revoked Morrissey’s law license last year, and the Supreme Court affirmed that decision July 18.

The court said Morrissey’s “extensive disciplinary record” in part justified the sanction of revocation in the face of two new ethical violations. The justices ruled his 2014 conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor was an ethics breach because the circumstances undermined his fitness to practice law.

Reviewing the “long and notorious book” of Morrissey’s disciplinary history, the court said the record “establishes Morrissey’s chronic unwillingness to practice law in conformity with the rules that govern our profession.” The justices added: “The sanction of revocation is fully justified.”

In a prepared statement, Morrissey’s attorneys made no mention of any plan to ask the court for rehearing. Instead, the lawyers said they will seek a second reinstatement when Morrissey is eligible in five years.

Morrissey was first disbarred in 2003 after seven prior disciplinary sanctions. He was reinstated to the bar in 2011 on a 4-3 Supreme Court decision.

Two justices who objected to license restoration in 2011 – Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan and Senior Justice LeRoy F. Millette Jr. – voted with the rest of the court this month to affirm revocation. Justice William C. Mims did not take part in the decision this month, although he was in the majority that approved reinstatement in 2011. That 2011 majority also included now-Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons and Justices Cleo E. Powell and S. Bernard Goodwyn.

The court’s decision – possibly ending Morrissey’s legal career – comes as Morrissey is poised to revive his political career. He won the June 11 Democratic primary for the 16th District seat of state Sen. Rosalyn Dance and faces an independent candidate in the Nov. 5 election.

Morrissey served as Richmond’s elected commonwealth’s attorney in the early 1990s and then was elected to four terms in the House of Delegates. He ran unsuccessfully for Richmond mayor in 2016.

Scandal cited

The Supreme Court relied on both Morrissey’s highly publicized 2013 sexual liaison with a 17-year-old office staffer and his extensive discipline record to conclude revocation was justified.

Morrissey argued there was no nexus between his conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and his fitness to practice law. While the court acknowledged that a conviction for a crime does not necessarily equate to a violation of Rule 8.4(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the justices said Morrissey’s conduct tarnished his qualifications as an attorney.

“Here, the record indicates that Morrissey encouraged an underage girl to apply to his firm, knowing she was below the age of legal consent, and hired her as a receptionist. In short order, he engaged in a sexual relationship with her that began in the law office conference room. Despite his guilty plea, he tries to shift the blame to others,” the court wrote.

“The facts in the record justify a finding by clear and convincing evidence that Morrissey’s violation of a criminal statute and the attendant circumstances call into question his honesty, trustworthiness, and fitness to practice law,” the order continued.

The ultimate sanction of revocation was justified by three factors, the court said. One was Morrissey’s attempts to shift blame to others. Another was the fact the infractions occurred “barely one year after Morrissey regained his law license.” Finally, the court cited Morrissey’s long discipline record.

Factual findings sufficient

The court addressed two other issues. The justices found clear and convincing evidence that Morrissey violated two ethics rules when he called on a first-year associate to handle a nolle prosequi hearing even though she had not yet taken Virginia’s required oath of fidelity as a new lawyer.

The court order also addressed Morrissey’s contention that the circuit court panel failed to include sufficient factual findings to meet the standards for bar discipline. Assuming without deciding that rule requirements for factual findings apply to the order of a three-judge disciplinary panel, the court said the panel in Morrissey’s case met that standard with its “extensive factual findings.”

Looking toward reinstatement

The VSB was represented at the Supreme Court by Matthew R. McGuire of the attorney general’s office.

“We are pleased with the decision,” said Bar Counsel Renu M. Brennan at the VSB.

Morrissey was represented by both William M. Stanley and Frank K. Friedman. The lawyers said they were disappointed in the court’s decision, noting that most of the Virginia State Bar’s ethics charges against Morrissey last year were either withdrawn by the VSB or stricken or rejected by the three-judge panel.

“The remaining three charges we felt were technical offenses, unsupported by the evidence and warranted reversal,” the lawyers said.

“Joe is a fighter, and we know that he will continue to bring the kind of effort and ‘can-do’ spirit that he brought into the courthouse on behalf of his clients, to his future duties to the citizens he will serve in the State House,” the attorneys continued.

The lawyers said they will seek Morrissey’s reinstatement to the bar when he becomes eligible, “so that he can return to the practice of law and fight for his clients as he always has before.”

No petition for reinstatement may be filed sooner than five years from the effective date of a revocation, according to bar rules.

Updated July 19 to identify counsel for the VSB and add VSB comment.

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