Justice Wells Speaks About Professionalism in the Practice of Law
Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells used three recent Florida Bar cases to highlight a talk about professional responsibility to a group of law students on Friday.
Wells has served on the Florida Supreme Court since 1994 and served as Chief Justice from 2000-2002. He was brought to campus by the American Constitution Society.
Wells graduated from the UF College of Law in 1964. He has a great feeling of importance toward the law school because of the public service graduates have provided. He also advised students to continue this trend.
“So many of the leaders of Florida have come through and are coming through the College of Law,” Wells said. “It’s enormously important in the day that we live in now that we have people that are dedicated to making our government work… As you move through law school and into the practice of law, I hope that you will build on your enthusiasm for work in the community and work in government because it needs you.”
Wells spoke largely about the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, which includes all professionalism matters with the Florida Bar.
He used three recent cases to highlight three important areas of professional responsibility. In The Florida Bar v. Morgan, the lawyer was rude to the court, which Wells said The Florida Supreme Court has taken a strong stance against. Wells has seen this type of unprofessionalism in person when he was working for the Justice Department in Kansas. He was arguing for the FAA for a summary judgment, which the judge did not grant.
“I had the FAA representative with me, and as we were walking out the back of the courtroom, the FAA representative said very loudly of course, ‘If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a dumb judge,’ Wells said. “I was very thankful that I got out of there, and I didn’t care much if he got out of there.”
In the second case, The Florida Bar v. Committee, a lawyer got so wrapped up in the case that he used the litigation process to harass the other side. This earned him a 91-day suspension, which actually lasts usually about a year because the lawyer has to prove rehabilitation, Wells said.
Finally, in The Florida Bar v. Martinez-Genova, the lawyer had a substance abuse problem and misappropriated third-party funds, then was disbarred for five years.
“We have now about 80,000 lawyers and there is unfortunately an enormous docket of grievance matters that come through the grievance committees,” Wells said. “If there is a finding of probably cause that a lawyer has committed a violation of the Code of Professional Conduct, that matter is then tried before a referee. The referee is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. A report is developed by the referee, and then it comes to the court. So the ultimate decision on lawyer discipline is at the Florida Supreme Court.”
Besides Florida Bar cases, the Florida Supreme Court handles capital punishment cases and discrepancies in law between two Florida District Courts of Appeal. Sometimes, the District Courts of Appeal just pass the cases right to the Supreme Court, which is how Bush v. Gore got to the Supreme Court, when Wells was the Chief Justice.
“The district courts, as I often say, they saw how hot that potato was and they gave it the old wave,” Wells said. “They just waved it right on through to us, and we accepted.”
One of the biggest mistakes Wells sees lawyers often make is getting too involved with their cases and overstepping the advocate’s role.
“It’s important to understand that you are there as a lawyer in a representative capacity,” Wells said. “I see too many lawyers that forget that that, and the case becomes about them. They become so wrapped up in the issue, and it’s about them. They’ve forgotten that it’s the client, the party they they’re representing, whose future is on the line.”