Lawyer Appeals Disciplinary Case That Started With A Speeding Ticket
It all started with a speeding ticket. The situation escalated with a strongly worded letter to a court clerk, and then reached the precipice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now 10 years after he was first pulled over, Stephen J. Williams, of Storrs, is continuing to fight a disciplinary case that led to a his law license being suspended in two states and the District of Columbia, as well as a temporary ban from practicing in federal court.
The initial suspension was supposed to be for six months. But because Williams chose to fight the suspensions on constitutional and procedural grounds, and has refused to take court-ordered professional standards courses because it would be a mark on his permanent disciplinary record, his license to practice has been put on hold for seven years.
"People have asked me, 'Why don't you just take the course?' My license could be reinstated if I did that, but then I would have a history and I would have accepted they were right," Williams said. "For me, the only option is prevail. I want my license back, and I want them to say, 'Whoops, we made a mistake.'"
Williams, who refers to his case as "the poster boy for judicial abuse," is pressing on. In an appeal recently filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Williams continues to dispute the lawfulness of the Connecticut discipline decision. He's also launched a renewed attack on the principal of reciprocal discipline, in which lawyers licensed in multiple jurisdictions face identical punishment in each for a single rule violation in one.
Mark Dubois, Connecticut's former state's chief disciplinary counsel whose office was involved in the original case against Williams, credited his one-time opponent for his tenacity.
"It is probably the most unusual case I ever dealt with," said Dubois, who is now a private practice attorney in New London and president-elect of the Connecticut Bar Association. "We got his appeal of the matter dismissed by our Supreme Court. That appeal dealt with both the criminal case and the disciplinary one. The District Court [decided] the reciprocal case against him on the lawyer discipline and he took that to SCOTUS. They did not take it.
"Now he is fighting the issue at the Second Circuit? Fascinating."
Post Office Box
Williams is a financial professional in the international banking world, with an MBA as well as law licenses to practice in New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., and in federal court. His disciplinary problem started in April 2004, when he was living in Hong Kong and working for an insurance company there.
While visiting family in Connecticut, he was pulled over in Windham County for speeding. Instead of paying the $148 fine, Williams pleaded not guilty and provided authorities with a post office box number in Hong Kong. He instructed them to direct all correspondence relating to the traffic offense to that address. But he then closed the post office box, and didn't show up for a hearing for which authorities said they sent him notice.
Williams, who says he didn't get the notices he was supposed to, was subsequently stopped in Connecticut and charged with driving with a suspended driver's license. He appeared in court, where the suspended license infraction and the failure to appear at the speeding ticket hearing charge were combined. Williams chose to fight both. "I didn't go about it like a person who knows nothing about the law, and sign the forms they wanted me to sign with a little pencil," he said. "No, I researched the law and I filed motions. How dare I?"
His traffic case was originally assigned to Judge Michael E. Riley in the Windham Judicial District. When an evidentiary hearing was scheduled to determine if proper notice — about both the speeding ticket hearing and subsequent license suspension — had in fact been sent to Williams, he sent a letter to the Deputy Chief Clerk of Court in Danielson.
In that letter, Williams wrote "that it was obvious a mistake was made by the Clerk's Office, and that the notices were not sent to the correct address." Beyond that, Williams wrote, ethical problems could arise if the clerk was to work with the prosecutors' office in the matter. He added: "You should consider whether you wish to obtain independent legal counsel."
The letter was brought to the attention of Judge Frances Foley III, the administrative judge for the Windham J.D. Foley moved for disciplinary actions against Williams. At one early hearing, the judge admonished Williams. According to court records, Foley said the attorney had given the clerk's office "unsolicited legal advice" and that Williams had improperly suggested the conduct of the state's attorney's office was unethical.
For those things, Foley said, "you have failed to follow the rules laid down in the Practice Book."
In the grievance case that followed, Williams was presented with charges of violating a handful of rules in Connecticut, including Practice Book Rule 4.4, which states a lawyer cannot "use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden" another person.
Due Process Complaints
After Connecticut suspended Williams, other states where he was licensed followed suit.
He is challenging his punishment on several grounds. First, he claims that the state misinterpreted the Practice Book rule used to justify his punishment and that his rights were violated during the disciplinary process because he wasn't allowed to question his accusers or call witnesses.
Williams further argued that the courts in New York and the District of Columbia should not have automatically suspended his license just because Connecticut did. He argues that he should have been allowed to argue his case in each jurisdiction. "It violates due process, because you aren't permitted to be heard in the reciprocal jurisdictions," Williams said.
He asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on that issue, but the high court refused to take up the case. Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny ordered Williams suspended from practice in federal court for a period of six months. It's that decision that Williams most recently appealed to the Second Circuit.
Steven Seligman, an attorney in Hartford who represents lawyers in disciplinary cases, looked over the appeal briefs filed by Williams. Although he couldn't form an opinion on their legal merits, Seligman said the arguments raise some interesting questions about reciprocal discipline.
"Mr. Williams appears to be saying that these disciplinary decisions should not be rubber stamped, that there ought to be someone scrutinizing these decisions," said Seligman. "It's an interesting claim."
What is most astonishing to Dubois is the fact that the whole dispute started over a speeding ticket. It takes "a lot of principle" to fight such a case for so long, Dubois said.
But Williams said his battle to get his law license reinstated in three jurisdictions and federal court isn't driven by anything idealistic. "I wish I could tell you that I was pursuing some great noble cause but that just isn't so," he said. "At first, I simply was trying to get my Connecticut driving privileges reinstated and avoid having to pay the $125 reinstatement fee. But I realized that I really had no choice but to see this through to its conclusion."