Moral Character

Over a two year period in the late 1990’s, journalist Stephen Glass fabricated some forty articles in prestigious publications, including The New Republic and Harpers. His fraud is considered among the worst in the annals of journalism. At the time they were committed, Glass was also a part-time law student. Following his graduation, he applied for membership in the New York State Bar, by which point the fraud had been discovered. Glass was informed his application would likely not be granted, and so he withdrew it.

Glass moved to California and began working as a law clerk for a firm that represented many homeless persons. It was unanimously agreed that Glass assisted them with conscientiousness and skill. After passing the California State bar exam, Glass applied for admission. Part of the process entailed a hearing on whether he met the good character requirement. The tortured path involved decisions by four separate tribunals, and eventually landed up before the state’s highest Court, the California Supreme Court.

In a decision rendered January 27, 2014, the Court refused Glass’s admission. The key issue was whether Glass’s rehabilitation was sufficiently compelling to overcome his prior misconduct. The Court decided it was not and, in doing so, undertook a review of the fundamental importance of good character in a way that is of relevance elsewhere. Some of the comments are set out below.

In order to practice law in California, a person must be “of good moral character.” This denotes qualities of honesty, fairness and scrupulous observance of fiduciary responsibility. The requirement of good moral character is “essential for the protection of clients and for the proper functioning of the judicial system itself.”

According to previous decisions of the Court, persons of good moral character “do not commit acts or crimes involving moral turpitude.” Conversely, where a person seeks to rely on rehabilitation to overcome previous acts of moral turpitude, there must be “a substantial period of exemplary conduct following the applicant’s misdeeds.” Given the gravity of Glass’s prior misconduct, the issue before the Court was whether there was “a compelling showing of rehabilitation and truly exemplary conduct over an extended period of time to demonstrate his fitness for the practice of law.”

In deciding there was not, the Court concluded with these important words: “Honesty is absolutely fundamental in the practice of law; without it, the profession is worse than valueless in the place it holds in the administration of justice…We do well to repeat Justice Felix Frankfurter’s  eloquent description of the moral character required of lawyers. ‘It is a fair characterization of the lawyer’s responsibility in our society that he [or she] stands as a shield in defence of right and to ward off wrong. From a profession charged with such responsibilities, there must be exacted those qualities of truth-speaking, of a high sense of honor, of granite discretion, of the strictest observance of fiduciary responsibility, that have, throughout the centuries, been compendiously described as moral character.’”