This is the first of a four-part series of columns based an extended interview with George B. Collins.
Representing lawyers can be challenging — and representing judges, even more so.
That’s from the old-school Arkansas-raised legal icon, George B. Collins, whom I had the great privilege of interviewing shortly before his death in October at age 85.
Among all the great and famous, when lawyers and judges needed help, George was the man. He represented lawyers and judges before the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission, the Judicial Inquiry Board and in many law firm breakups. I sought his advice often.
“The JIB has no resemblance to what people like to think of as the judicial system,” he told me. “It comes out of the 1970 Constitution, and it is different from anything else you do in the law. You have a judge who has a bad letter written about him or whatever, and it’s not trivial. Trivial cases, they bounce all the time. In a JIB case, you don’t get to confront your witness against you. You don’t get to cross-examine the witness against you. You have zero discovery except what they choose to hand you to ask you questions about. They decide, as would a grand jury, whether or not the case should go forward before the Courts Commission, which is a completely separate body from the JIB.
“They sit in a room with no windows over in the Thompson [Center], and you go into a hearing and you know about the case before you go in — what the judge recalls of it, what your client can tell you and what they choose to tell you — because they’re going to ask questions about the subject. They’ll give you the subject matter. Then you have to put your client on without hearing the evidence against your client. It’s really quite exciting. Then they decide whether or not to vote the complaint.
“All of these people are, I would say, fundamentally fair-minded, decent people. I trust them. The reason the JIB works is the quality of the people who are on the JIB. It could drift into serious abuse, because they don’t have the restraints that I think they should have, but the people they actually get, like John Gallo, like Judge [Donald C.] Hudson from the 2nd District and people like that, these are fine people and they don’t hate judges. They’re not a lynch mob, although at times judges can really get them angry. The civilian members have been there a while and they mature into good members. There have been some I didn’t like much and some I liked more, but I have respect for them and because of the quality of the people on the JIB it’s a system that works, but you wouldn’t believe it if you go over the procedural facts. The judge decides, and you can’t appeal, and the hanging takes place in the afternoon. It’s not a good law, but it’s good people, and because the various governors and the Supreme Court have been careful who they appointed, the system works OK.”
Collins told me there is not much negotiation because the JIB doesn’t control the disposition. In one case involving whether a judge lived in his court’s jurisdiction, the prosecutor agreed to settle the case for a six-month suspension. The judge, initially resistant, agreed to the deal.
The Courts Commission, Collins continued, “which is a totally separate body, constitutional body set up by the constitution of 1970, they said, ‘We don’t really care what you people agreed to. This man is not a judge.’ And they took him off and sent him home. He can go practice law like an ordinary mortal.”
Collins said it would be like “defending a guy in the circuit court of Warsaw, Poland, and you don’t speak Polish … You don’t even imagine appeal. There is no appeal. You try a case, you don’t say, ‘Well for the record, may I offer this?’”
He pointed out that while there is the right to appeal in ARDC matters, and either side can, that’s not the case at the JIB, where the closest analogy may be a grand jury where the defendant is called in and has to testify.
“When we go to the JIB, they always say, ‘Would you like to make an argument?’ Here’s seven people that want to get done with a heavy morning of business, and they want to hear my argument about like they want to catch a loathsome disease.”
Collins admitted that the only times he ever argued in a JIB hearing, he lost: “It was so hopeless that I just had to put some stuff in to try to maybe shake them up and get them to see it differently. But experienced, honest, capable people don’t really need to be harangued by a lawyer.”
One of the hardest parts of practice before the JIB is how to handle one’s client: Judges aren’t used to being in such a vulnerable position, he said.
“The angry judge whose authority has never before been questioned, you have to make them understand that being a judge is not an inherited deity situation. It’s something that can be taken away from you in one little whack. It’s not a secure job. Persuading a judge of that is sometimes difficult, but we do that right here.”
This, naturally, led me to raise a topic of a conversation I have ongoing with 1st District Justice Mike Hyman — comparing judges to umpires and whether judges should wear robes.
Collins replied, “I have great respect for umpires. I’ve met some. I think that could very well be the ultimate judicial officer in society. You look at him, his foot didn’t touch the base, he’s out. Is he a good fellow? Yes. Is he a friend of your brother-in-law? Yes. But his foot didn’t touch the base. I’m kind of a baseball fan, but the whole of baseball in a very real way is dependent on the integrity of the umpires.”
And for the robes?
“Everybody in the world says yes, but I don’t,” he told me.
“The judge is first among equals. A judge is not divine. A judge is simply first among equals. The Constitution doesn’t require it. I guess they could wear [robes] if they want to. They could also wear a gym suit if they want to. But I don’t believe that it’s necessary. A good judge will have the dignity of sitting on the bench and doing it. Nobody that tried a case in front of Hubert Will or Walter Kowalski would ever say that their presence was less than judicial.”
Stay tuned for future pieces on ARDC practice, how to handle firm breakups and George’s thoughts from six decades of practice on how lawyers and judges should conduct themselves.