COLUMN-Rights and wrongs of Stephen Glass decision: Frankel

by Reuters
Tuesday, 28 January 2014 23:23 GMT

(The opinions expressed here are those of Alison Frankel, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Alison Frankel

NEW YORK, Jan 28 (Reuters) - On Monday, the California Supreme Court unanimously agreed to deny Stephen Glass's application for admission to the state bar.

Glass "made himself infamous as a dishonest journalist by fabricating material for more than 40 articles for The New Republic magazine and other publications," the judges said, in an unsigned 33-page opinion. And though his fabrications took place almost two decades ago - and he has since proved to be an admirably selfless law clerk - Glass's attempts to rehabilitate his reputation seemed hollow to the state justices.

"We must recall that what is at stake is not compassion for Glass, who wishes to advance from being a supervised law clerk to enjoying a license to engage in the practice of law on an independent basis," the opinion concluded. "Given our duty to protect the public and maintain the integrity and high standards of the profession, our focus is on the applicant's moral fitness to practice law. On this record, the applicant failed to carry his heavy burden of establishing his rehabilitation and current fitness."

The opinion quotes at least three of Glass's many eminent supporters - former New Republic owner Martin Peretz, Georgetown University Law Center professor Stephen Cohen and journalist Melanie Thernstrom - criticizing the California bar admission committee, which insisted on challenging Glass's moral fitness at the California Supreme Court even after the State Bar Court ruled that he had established his redemption.


Others critics surfaced after the court's ruling. Jeffrey Toobin tweeted that the Supreme Court made the wrong call. David Plotz of Slate - a former New Republic editor whom Glass maligned, along with Plotz's wife, Hanna Rosin, in his thinly veiled novel about his transgressions - said the ruling was "misguided and cruel."

"The Committee of Bar Examiners and the Supreme Court justices - every one a lawyer - don't want to let Glass be a lawyer because they're embarrassed that anyone could possibly think that he's like them," Plotz wrote. "They care about telling themselves that their profession is saintlier than it is, and they're superior to the reformed liar who wants to work with them. But law isn't holy orders. It's a job."

I'm of the view that Plotz and other critics of the California Supreme Court decision are exactly right - and exactly wrong. The opinion's purported reasons for continuing to doubt Glass's honesty are unconvincing. Glass wasn't entirely accurate in describing his cooperation with the publications he duped, and he didn't list every one of his fraudulent articles when he applied for admission to the New York bar, the court said.


We can all name licensed lawyers who've committed much graver transgressions: padding bills, sexually harassing underlings, helping clients lie under oath - and that's just a small sampling. Glass's worst offenses were outrageous, especially the racist undertones the California Supreme Court detected in some of his fabricated anecdotes and quotes, but at least he has apologized to most of the people he hurt (in handwritten notes, no less). I'd be willing to bet you could find worse human beings on the rolls of every state bar in America, without even trying very hard.


But here's why Glass's supporters are wrong to complain about the process: Glass agreed to submit to the whims of state bar licensing committees when he set out to become a lawyer. There is no inalienable right to practice law, as Glass surely knew by the time he applied for admission to the California bar.

The law may be just a job, in Plotz's words, but it is a job that aspirants understand they can't have unless they're accepted by the profession's self-regulators. Stephen Glass got a fair shot to make his case. He presented the Supreme Court with evidence of his rehabilitation and good character and offered explanations for not only his journalism sins but also for any subsequent failures to report them exhaustively. The California justices listened, faithfully reported Glass's evidence - and decided they didn't want him to be a lawyer anyway. That's their prerogative.

Perhaps, as Plotz said, lawyers have an outdated and inflated view of the profession's moral fiber. Or maybe the California Supreme Court is all too aware of the public's ever-eroding confidence in lawyers, and decided that admitting a candidate who "made himself infamous as a dishonest journalist" wasn't a very good way to enhance the profession's reputation.

That seems to me to be the unspoken explanation for the decision to bar Glass: The law has plenty of its own scoundrels; there's no reason to make it a second-career haven for notorious scoundrels driven out of their first-chosen fields. (Reporting by Alison Frankel; Editing by Ted Botha)

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