A constitutional battle involving a lawyer's right to insult a judge has been joined at the Michigan Supreme Court, which could set new limits on what lawyers say and do outside the courtroom.
And at the center of it all is Geoffrey Fieger, the outspoken former attorney for assisted-suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian.
Fieger faces a reprimand from the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission for insulting three state appellate judges on a radio talk show in 1999 after the judges overturned a $15 million verdict he won in a medical malpractice case.
According to the grievance commission, Fieger used numerous obscenities, called the justices "three jackass court of appeals judges," declared war on them and referred to them as "Nazis."
Big deal, argued Fieger's lawyer, Michael Alan Schwartz, maintaining that Fieger's comments outside the courtroom are protected by the First Amendment.
"There's no law that says you've got to be dignified," said Schwartz of Schwartz, Kelly & Oltarz-Schwartz in Farmington Hills, Mich. "Why are they looking to Fieger and what did he do that was so terrible? He made some uncharitable comments about a couple of judges in the course of a radio program."
MICHIGAN'S UNIQUE RULES
But according to the grievance commission, Fieger violated two Michigan rules regarding professional conduct, including a "courtesy rule," which is unique to Michigan and requires that lawyers treat judges with respect and courtesy.
"We all agree that attorneys have the right to criticize judges. There's no doubt about that ... . They just have to do so in a professional way," said Robert Edick, deputy administrator for the grievance commission.
Edick said the commission is asking the state high court to draw the line between an attorney's right to free speech and an attorney's obligation to courtesy and professionalism.