Lawyers are being forced to defend their livelihoods before bar associations and ethics boards
— not for obvious misconduct, but after opposing Democrats.
fter the chaotic 2020 election, leftist organizations began filing ethics and even criminal complaints against lawyers who opposed Democrats in election litigation. Democrats have recently expanded these tactics to lawyers who cross Democrats on any policy area.
“Their most sweeping goal is to discourage and chill lawyers from representing Republicans and conservatives, particularly in election law cases. They want to apply a much higher standard to them in order to punish them,” says attorney Jim Bopp Jr., who defeated a politically motivated ethics complaint after representing Wisconsin Special Counsel Michael Gableman over his 2020 investigation that unearthed “widespread election fraud.”
Disciplining conservative, or simply neutral, lawyers can strip Democrats’ opponents of high-quality legal defense, erasing justice by skewing the legal playing field. Most notorious, of course, is former President Donald Trump’s difficulties securing counsel to defend against the multiple lawsuits attempting to bankrupt him and ban voters from selecting him on the ballot.
What They Do to Trump, They’re Doing to Everyone
Democrats are not just seeking to eliminate competent legal defense from Trump. They’re pursuing lawyers who oppose their policies in any domain, from former Attorney General William Barr to his former deputy Jeff Clark to Trump election adviser John Eastman and local lawyers with no national profile such as Janet Angus in Wisconsin and an Arizona prosecutor who wouldn’t let rioters off the hook.
Justice Clarence Thomas has been unrelentingly defamed since the day he was nominated to the Supreme Court. Most recently, the war against his rock-solid constitutional jurisprudence has materialized in multiple politicized ethics complaints.
The Texas Bar Association has been waging war on Attorney General Ken Paxton using ethics complaints. Three Arizona lawyers who contested chaotic election procedures in 2020 and did work for gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake now face discipline complaints before the state supreme court.
Many of the 1,265 Americans charged for their presence at the Jan. 6, 2021 riot have been unable to get competent counsel, partly due to lawyers’ fears of retaliation for assisting unpopular defendants. This is a far cry from the entire legal profession’s former support for providing competent counsel to even the worst of criminals to ensure constitutional due process and fairness in court, Bopp noted.
“The ACLU could defend the Nazis marching through Skokie in front of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “And there couldn’t be a more despicable bunch.”
Clark’s home was raided by federal agents. Eastman’s legal defense in three separate lawfare cases will cost him $3 million, threatening his wife’s retirement savings. Half of current Republican attorneys general and many of their predecessors have faced discipline complaints, most relating to 2020 election litigation.
Such complaints not only threaten a lawyer’s license to practice, but also impose legal fees and paperwork burdens. Lengthy complaints can take “an enormous psychological toll on people,” says Shalom Stone, a well-known New Jersey lawyer whose specialties include legal ethics.
Disagree with Democrats, Face a Tornado
Complaints and retaliatory litigation are only two of many tools Democrats are deploying to eliminate competent legal opposition to their policies. U.S. Supreme Court justices who are more likely to uphold the Constitution have been threatened with assassination and mob violence. A man with a pistol and other weapons was arrested in 2022 outside Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home after he confessed to an assassination attempt.
More than 100 lawyers have been strung up with ethics complaints from The 65 Project for opposing Democrats in election litigation. Media Matters founder David Brock, an adviser for The 65 Project, told Axios the outfit is working not only to strip law licenses from any lawyer who opposes Democrats but also to “shame them and make them toxic in their communities and in their firms. … You’re threatening their livelihood.”
A similar organization called Lawyers Defending Democracy published a memo in January urging state bar associations to initiate ethics investigations and disciplinary complaints to “regulate the legal profession” and “defend democracy.” The memo states outright that “ethics investigations of lawyers like John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, and Kenneth Paxton are at the heart of what state bars can and should do.”
In 32 states and D.C., bar membership is mandatory to practice law. The American Bar Association has recommended “diversity and inclusion” provisions in lawyers’ ethics codes, effectively sanctioning complaints against those who notice men and women are different and who oppose racial preferences. Vermont, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, New York, New Jersey, and some federal courts have adopted such provisions.
Stone says he’s not seen politically motivated ethics complaints in New Jersey, but litigants will sometimes file ethics charges against opponents to gain leverage in court. That’s why New Jersey’s ethics board often won’t consider complaints until litigation between the parties has concluded.
Even when those targeted can defeat such complaints, Bopp noted, “the initial allegation has a lot longer legs than the eventual response or vindication.” A lengthy legal defense is bankrupting to anyone not independently wealthy.
Even for the independently wealthy, lawsuits can aim to take everything. In the last two years, Trump has spent at least $76 million on legal fees, not to mention the potential loss of New York businesses worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, over a property estimate the legal system decided to challenge.
“The chill factor is real,” Bopp said. “These disciplinary commissions are controlled by the state supreme courts. And many state supreme courts have been taken over by hardcore leftists. What do you think they’re doing with staffing and their appointments?”
‘People Are Taken Care of on the Left’
Successful complaints against elected attorneys general would deny voters their choice of top attorney to represent state interests in court. A Marquette University professor’s database shows Republican attorneys general have initiated 55 lawsuits against the Biden administration, versus Democrat AGs initiating 131 lawsuits against the Trump administration.
Similarly massive asymmetries appear throughout this domain, said Andrew Kloster, general counsel to Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and a former Trump administration lawyer: “The left has a 10-1 nonprofit advantage,” he said, noting career opportunities are limited for openly conservative lawyers due to far-left bias at most large law firms. Democrats have developed a large legal infrastructure that funds policy work, fellowships for law students and young litigators, and free defense for criminals and agitators on the left — often with public bucks.
“People are taken care of on the left. On the right, not so much. We don’t have the defensive advantage, and we don’t have the offensive appetite,” Kloster said.
In the 2020 election cycle, 81 percent of donations from lawyers and legal associations went to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets.org. Since non-leftist lawyers are already a minority in the profession, bankrupting and harassing them really means working to eliminate Democrats’ legal opponents entirely.
Changes in political ideology by occupation, 2000-2020— Kevin Bass PhD MS (@kevinnbass) January 5, 2024
The march through the institutions in 13 seconds
Left side of graphs is left-leaning
Right side, right-leaning
Top half of occupations is professional class
Bottom half, blue collar
Pause at 2020 pic.twitter.com/Aek9nWvUnJ
Large law firms that donate tens of millions of dollars almost entirely to Democrats rake in tax dollars through legal contracts from red states, says a 2022 Alliance for Consumers report. The report also noted that from 2017-2020, eight large law firms put more money into Democrat coffers than the world’s largest asset management firm, Blackrock.
“Their goal is what our goal should be: They lower costs on their side and raise costs on our side,” Kloster said. He also said people should stop giving smear campaigns the time of day, no matter what institution sanctions them: “We say, ‘We don’t trust the swamp, we hate the swamp,’ and then they have a targeting campaign, and we suddenly accept everything they say is true.”
The only way to stop this weaponization of the legal system is to counterattack, Kloster said: “There does need to be funding to make complaints and to do serious investigations … to file complaints against the organized left.” Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who is on the executive board of the Republican Attorneys General Association, noted to The Federalist that in some states these complaints are prosecuted by courts instead of private bar associations, amounting to government policing attorneys’ speech.
In December, the Center for Renewing America filed an ethics complaint against Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was selected for her race and sex, for failing to complete legally required financial disclosures. Kloster also recommended hiring lawyers and paying for insurance to indemnify employees and volunteers against complaints that could easily bankrupt the average person. The Courage Under Fire legal defense fund backs officials targeted for effective opposition to Democrats, including Clark.
Joy Pullmann is executive editor of The Federalist, a happy wife, and the mother of six children. Her ebooks include "Classic Books For Young Children," and "101 Strategies For Living Well Amid Inflation." An 18-year education and politics reporter, Joy has testified before nearly two dozen legislatures on education policy and appeared on major media from Fox News to Ben Shapiro to Dennis Prager. Joy is a grateful graduate of the Hillsdale College honors and journalism programs who identifies as native American and gender natural. Her traditionally published books include "The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids," from Encounter Books.