Save Our Volunteer District Ethics Committees

John P. Paone, Jr., Esq.

By John P. Paone, Jr., Esq.

Disciplinary oversight of New Jersey’s 70,000 attorneys is governed by a multi-tiered system. The New Jersey Supreme Court is the final arbiter of attorney discipline. Through the Rules of Professional Conduct and decisional law, the Court has established the highest standards for the members of the bar.

The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) serves as an intermediate appellate level of the attorney disciplinary system. The DRB reviews all recommendations for discipline from District Ethics Committees and the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE).

The OAE, which is based in Trenton, includes an entirely paid staff of over 35 persons, consisting of lawyers, auditors, investigators, and administrative personnel. The OAE assists and manages the District Ethics Committees throughout the state. In addition, the OAE itself handles serious, emergent and complex disciplinary prosecutions.

At the front line of ethics oversight are 18 District Ethics Committees. These committees, which are located in each vicinage, screen inquiries, docket and investigate grievances, prosecute complaints, conduct hearings and issue reports. The district committees are composed of 502 attorneys and 90 lay members, who volunteer their time and experience to oversee grievances whether filed by clients, attorneys or judges. These individuals are selected by the Supreme Court after being vetted for their impeccable reputation and dedication to public service. The result is that grievances are filed at no cost and with all cases disposed of in a timely and fair manner. Our disciplinary system in New Jersey has worked so well that it has been recognized as “a model for the entire country.”

Recently, a “consultation team” from the American Bar Association (ABA) standing committee on professional oversight recommended a change to our system. This recommendation would effectively replace the hundreds of attorney and lay volunteers with a paid bureaucracy that would operate out of Trenton. The cost of this recommendation would undoubtedly reach millions of dollars and there is presently no money in the judiciary budget to defray this expense. The reason for this recommendation is to ensure that all ethics grievances are handled uniformly throughout the state. However, there is no evidence that ethics grievances are not presently handled in a uniform manner. Nevertheless, the Court has asked for comments on this recommendation. On September 15th, our board of trustees voted unanimously to oppose the ABA recommendation.

This is not the first time that a recommendation regarding the installation of a statewide ethics bureaucracy has been made. Indeed, the initial recommendation which dates back 30 years ago was previously considered and rejected by our Supreme Court. Since that time, there has been no empirical data to suggest that the volunteer District Ethics Committees do not work uniformly, or that grievances are not disposed of fairly.

Throughout the years, the Middlesex County (District VIII) Ethics Committee has had some of the most talented attorneys and members of the public contributing their time and experience to ensure that attorneys maintain that high standard set forth by the Supreme Court. The participation of these volunteer attorney and lay members is critical to the operation of the attorney disciplinary system. These men and women go largely unrecognized for their service. The current District VIII volunteers are: the long time Secretary of the committee Manny Gerstein, Esq., the Chair Gregg R. Rubenstein, Esq., the Vice Chair Patricia M. Love, Esq., and members: Joshua D. Altman, Esq., William C. Cagney, Esq., Carlos Diaz-Cobo, Esq., Kim M. Connor, Esq., Howard Duff, Esq., Glynn J. Dwyer, Esq., Angela Foster, Esq., Vincent Gentile, Esq., Daniel F. Gonzalez, Esq., Michele G. Haas, Esq., Evelyn M. Hartmann, Esq., Valerie A. Jackson, Esq., Anish A. Joshi, Esq., Spero A. Kalambakas, Esq., Kimberly Almasy LaMountain, Esq., Christine Jones Rowe, Esq., Willard C. Shih, Esq., Heather S. Timmons, Esq., Bernard Gross, Elaine M. Jasko, Kathleen Killion, Michael Kohut, Rabbi Chaim A. Rogoff and Ralph Thomas. On behalf of the MCBA, I thank these men and women (as well as the recall members not listed here and all those who have served on the committee in prior years) for their service. Our profession is honored by the contributions of these unselfish individuals.

The ABA recommendation is more than just a bad idea; it does a disservice to the volunteer men and women who have served the public and the judiciary so well. District Ethics Committees work and they should not be replaced by a paid bureaucracy. Our Supreme Court should reject the ABA recommendation and use this opportunity to recognize the hundreds of volunteers who at no cost to the public, help to ensure the integrity of the legal profession.

John P. Paone, Jr., Esq. of Paone, Zaleski & Brown of Woodbridge and Red Bank, is the President of the Middlesex County Bar Association.

The Middlesex County Bar Association is a non-profit professional membership organization whose purpose is to: Maintain and improve a viable, fiscally sound, self-sustaining membership organization open to all members of the legal community; Provide a proactive voice to represent the views, interests, and concerns of the legal community of Middlesex County on all issues affecting the practice of law and the administration of justice; Promote ethical conduct, collegiality, and mutual respect among the members of the legal community in Middlesex County through programs and services; Foster respect for the legal profession by the public; Enhance the quality of the legal services provided by our members through education, networking, and mutual support; and Encourage and provide opportunities for members to use their knowledge, skills and resources for the benefit of the public.

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