Seeing Rudy Giuliani’s law license suspended brought a jolt of schadenfreude to the hearts of countless lawyers. We had watched in horror as the man made a mockery of the legal system last year that fueled an attack on our capital. Even by the standards of a “justice” system rooted in racism and inequity, Rudy’s tactics were a shock.
So it was a thrill to read the 33-page ruling issued Thursday detailing the outright lies that one of America’s most prominent and long ago respected lawyers delivered in court and across the country, and repeating many of the arguments I made in one of the first ethics complaints filed against Giuliani.
But the state appellate judges’ ruling suspending his license to practice here—a move his son, running a ridiculous campaign for governor, ridiculously pinned on the “disgusting… politicization in our Justice Department,” which had nothing to do with the decision—is necessary, it’s far from sufficient to punish a man who’s disgraced himself and the legal profession. It’s funny that a 77-year-old former federal prosecutor turned disgraced politician whose main client doesn’t want to pay him lost his license to practice law for now; what’s coming next could be deadly serious.
TV lawyers often make the legal profession look like an amoral free-for-all, but the truth is that legal ethics rules are incredibly strict. And there’s good reason for that: the legal system can’t function when lawyers lie. We can spin, we can argue, and we can certainly be selective with the truth, but when lawyers blatantly lie, as Mr. Giuliani did throughout last year’s election litigation, our system begins to fall apart.
The good news is that New York’s decision is unlikely to be the end of Giuliani’s troubles. After taking to the national stage to lie about election officials, vendors, and countless others, he still may face ruinous civil damages there. And while it is unlikely that he will face criminal prosecution for how his lies reverberated through the halls of the Capitol as elected officials ran for their lives and one brave member of the Capital police gave his own, he is more likely to end up as the latest in a long line of Trump administration officials to face prosecutions for unlawful dealings abroad.
While the court stopped short of finding a “causal nexus” between Rudy’s lies and 1/6 attacks, it was clear that “the broad dissemination of false statements, casting doubt on the legitimacy of thousands of validly cast votes, is corrosive to the public’s trust in our most important democratic institutions.” And even apart from the violence Rudy’s lies emboldened, discrediting “the rights of legitimate voters is so immediately harmful to it and warrants interim suspension from the practice of law.”
While the slow plodding pace of the judiciary is frustrating, at least they are willing to do something. In just a few days, Sidney Powell and other attorneys who argued the Trump election case will be forced to appear in Federal court in Michigan to defend their actions in last year’s anti-democratic litigation. Powell is also facing civil suits based on her wild claims about voting machines and systems from the companies that make those.
Once again, the courts appear to be our last line of defense against the efforts to overturn our elections and undermine our democracy. Since last year’s elections, we’ve seen lawmakers at the federal and state level fan the flames of conspiracy theories both before and after they took deadly form. We saw some Republican governors and secretaries of state stand up for the integrity of our election, but a growing number of candidates and officials are pledging to do just the opposite in the future.
The courts may have saved us last election, but as we see the judiciary itself get increasingly polarized there is no guarantee our luck will hold out much longer. Each time we see courts and bar associations meting out consequences for the lawyers behind last year’s election lawsuit campaign, it can’t just be a moment of celebration for those who support the rule of law. It also must be a moment to remind us of the failure of Congress and the Biden administration to act.
At a moment when Congressional Republicans’ guiding philosophy is “inaction above all else,” we should be rekindling the calls for accountability. If we do nothing and thus acquiesce to Republican stall tactics and rationalizations, we will abet them in rewriting the history of January’s attacks. In the siloed media landscape we all occupy, it may be impossible for Trump supporters to be forced to acknowledge the truth of what took place, but we have to still try.
And until others act, the legal profession will continue to do what we need to do to hold our own accountable. This means disbarring Sidney Powell and those who helped her “unleash” the proverbial kraken. But the bar shouldn’t ignore the misconduct of lawyers who serve in state legislatures and Congress. Many of these lawyers continue to undermine our democracy by denying last year’s election, and they should face consequences as well. We may not have the power to heal our democracy or to dismantle the racism that defines so much of the legal system, but we can at least do something to punish those who want to weaponize the courts against our country.