Lawyers’ Assistance Program
Louisiana Supreme Court’s Evolving View of the Degenerative Role Played by Chemical Dependency in Attorney-Discipline Situations.
Our Louisiana Supreme Court is responsible for both monitoring the practice of attorneys in this state and for meting out discipline to lawyers guilty of various transgressions.
The Supreme Court first noted the adverse role played by alcoholism in our profession in 1988. In that year, the Court reviewed the case of The Louisiana State Bar Association vs. Longenecker, 538 So.2d 156 (La. 1989). The disciplinary issue in the case revolved around whether disputed fee portions of a check received to satisfy a judgment should remain within an attorney’s trust account until the dispute is resolved. (Although the facts of the case are not germane to this discussion, for the record: disputed fee proceeds should always be maintained either in a separate trust account or in the registry of the court until the fee dispute is resolved!)
In this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court was first called to pass upon the weight to be given to the respondent’s alcoholism during the pertinent period of practice and to his subsequent rehabilitation. Addressing this issue, the Longnecker court wrote as follows:
“This consideration (alcoholism and subsequent rehabilitation) is particularly appropriate as a factor in mitigation when the attorney has subsequently undertaken to rehabilitate himself and has been continually successful in recovering from the disease of alcoholism, especially if the clients did not sustain substantial harm. Disciplinary proceedings are not primarily to punish the lawyer but to protect the court and the public from unprofessional conduct.... In terms of public protection, a lesser penalty is warranted where there was misconduct largely attributable to the alcoholism of an attorney who has subsequently rehabilitated himself and no longer presents the same danger to his clients.”
The Louisiana State Bar Association vs. Longenecker, 538 So.2d 156 (La. 1989).
The very next year, the Louisiana Supreme Court addressed a similar situation in the case of Louisiana State Bar Association vs. Arthur F. Dumaine, 550 So.2d 1197 (La. 1989).
Louisiana State Bar Association vs. Dumaine, 550 So.2d 1197 (La. 1989).
Again, the operative facts giving rise to the need for attorney discipline are not germane to these discussions, but they revolve around the respondent’s conviction of a felony for the illegal use of a weapon. Mr. Dumaine was convicted and sentenced to one year at hard labor, a sentence ultimately vacated by the Supreme Court as too harsh.
The reasons surrounding Mr. Dumaine’s discharge of a firearm were integrally related to his chemical dependency and are set forth with specificity within the opinion. What is important for these proceedings, though, is that the Dumaine fact pattern gave the Louisiana Supreme Court another opportunity to address the manner in which professional infractions related to alcoholism should be addressed. As a matter of fact, the very first paragraph of the opinion reads as follows:
“This attorney disciplinary proceeding calls upon us to set forth precepts for determining whether a lawyer who has committed serious ethical violations should be placed on probation and allowed to continue to practice because his infractions were related to alcoholism.”
Later on the first page of the opinion, the Court viewed its role in this effort as follows:
“In making such a determination, the primary issues we must consider are whether the attorney’s lapses stemmed mainly from chemical dependency rather than lack of moral fitness and whether his recovery has progressed to the extent that he may be permitted to practice without undue risk of harm to his clients, the legal profession or the Courts.”